Photo by Matthew Sinclair
Teacher of the Year
asks: Can we stop denigrating teachers now?
By Valerie Strauss
State Teachers of the Year line the field at halftime during the
college football championship game in Tampa on Jan. 9, 2017. (Photo by
Ashley Lamb-Sinclair is the 2016 Kentucky Teacher of the Year.
Lamb-Sinclair teaches high school English and creative writing, and
authors the www.beautifuljunkyard.com website. During the 2015-16
school year, she took a sabbatical and worked with the Kentucky
Department of Education. Lamb-Sinclair is also the founder and
chief executive officer of Curio Learning, an educational technology
company launching a platform for teacher professional
development. And she has written several posts for this blog,
including this one, titled, “Why white students need black teachers —
by a white teacher.”
In this new piece, Lamb-Sinclair writes about the experience she and
other Teachers of the Years had when they were honored at the College
Football Playoffs National Championship game in Tampa earlier in
January, and why teachers are too often misunderstood by the
public. At a time when teachers have been unfairly blamed for
poor student performance by federal and state officials, the piece has
special resonance. (Her Twitter handle: @AshleyLambS)
By Ashley Lamb-Sinclair
My husband and I were taking an Uber recently while in Tampa, Florida,
and we engaged the driver in obligatory small talk. My husband told the
driver that we were there for the College Football Playoffs National
Championship game because as Kentucky Teacher of the Year, along with
the other state teachers of the year, I had been invited by The College
Football Foundation and the Council of Chief State School Officers to
represent the teachers across the nation by standing and being
recognized on the 50-yard line at halftime.
He seemed impressed, going so far as to announce my presence to the
attendants as he pulled up to the hotel to drop us off, but added so
automatically that it made me stiffen in my seat, “Well, how do we get
the other teachers to be like you then, huh? Because, well, most of ‘em
are just terrible.”
I gave an awkward laugh, we thanked him, and got out of the car. But as
I prepared for events that evening, I couldn’t shake his words. The
truth is that I am one of the lucky ones. The hours of planning and
grading, the almost anxiety-producing passion for my work, and the
years of standing in front of young people to help them grow into
productive adults led me to stand on the fifty yard line at the College
Football Playoffs National Championship game and wave to a cheering
crowd as a representative of the work that many teachers do.
But what the Uber driver didn’t know, what the fans in the stadium and
watching on television didn’t know, and what, sadly, many Americans
don’t know, is that the work of a teacher is really, really hard and
does not come down to the sound bites one often hears about what works
and what doesn’t in public schools.
The narrative that public schools are failing, teachers are widely
ineffective, and that politicians and business people are the ones to
“fix” all of these problems can sound more compelling than the truth.
And the image of what makes a great teacher can be so narrow for the
average person, that many of those fans may not have even known the
realities each of us faced that led us to that moment on the field. So
here is the truth: America saw 50 or so excellent teachers standing on
the field at halftime, but what happened behind the scenes is just as
Teachers never stop teaching and advocating.
At 10 a.m. on a Monday morning, the hotel bar was already populating
with sports fans wearing crimson and orange, depending on their team.
But in the middle, circled up, were 30 or so state teachers of the year
meeting to outline plans for developing an organization to protect
public schools and its students. In December, we pulled together to
create a video campaign with the help of Roman Lane Productions and
Curio Learning (an education technology startup I co-founded) and
planted the seeds for an organization called Protect Public Ed. While
others spent the morning preparing to tailgate, we spent ours planning
call campaigns to senators, determining a timeline for upcoming
initiatives, and coordinating our various state efforts in order to
support each other’s work. We have no budget, no agendas, and no
organizations to whom we are required to report. We met together, then
shared our story with a local reporter until the final minutes of
boarding the bus to the stadium, and messaged each other all evening
and into the next day about how to further our work.
We are not unique in this effort. In my own state of Kentucky, my
colleagues Tiffany Gruen, Brison Harvey, and Kari Patrick work
tirelessly without additional pay to manage a website
(www.kyedpolicy.org) and coordinate efforts in our state for teachers
and legislators to work together on education policy. And then they go
into the classroom and do amazing work with students. I could name
example after example of teachers just like them; teachers who advocate
for students inside and outside school walls, all the time.
Teachers never stop giving to students.
As we entered the stadium, the attendants handed each person a gift
card. It only took a few minutes for word to spread among our group
that the gift card was to Donors Choose, a nonprofit that helps
teachers get materials they need for their classroom. Considering the
level of budget cuts to education occurring in many states, the
impoverished students that many teachers teach and love, and the fact
that the average teacher spends $500 to $1,000 per year of personal
money on school supplies, we were thrilled to discover that the College
Football Foundation was investing in classrooms and giving sports fans
the opportunity to give to local teachers and students.
Then we realized that some people were throwing them away. We found
them on the ground and in trash cans. So when the stadium cheered for
us on the field, they had no idea that many of us had been literally
digging in the trash during the first half in order to find ways to
help our students. Most teachers appreciate the recognition of a job
well done when we get it from students, parents, and citizens.
But what also matters is recognizing how each individual can improve
the well being of students and teachers within local schools. Giving on
Donors Choose is a place to start. Another is paying attention when
education funding is cut by local, state, and national governments. No
professional adult should be digging in a trash can to do his or her
job well. And no child should go without proper resources for learning
and thriving either.
Teachers band together to do what is best for each other and kids.
When we left the field, we huddled around the lovable and kind New
Mexico Teacher of the Year, David Morales, who spoke to us about the
work we had done over the course of our year together and the work that
we will continue to do going forward. There was not a dry eye among us,
and not because we were sad to walk off the field and lose the title or
the recognition. We were crying because we had built something
together. We had shared in each other’s work.
Teaching can often feel isolating, so for teachers from across the
United States to come together and share experiences, combine forces,
and collaborate was truly powerful. We have sat together in rooms at
the White House to discuss education policy. We have shared stories of
our students and helped each other figure out ways to best help them.
And we have stood together in recognition as a powerful force of change
What our Uber driver didn’t understand is that we are not the only
ones. We are not unique in our excellence. There are teachers in public
schools in every state giving their best to students and advocating for
our profession. It felt energizing to stand on the field and be
recognized not for myself, but for every one of those powerful teachers
in classrooms who weren’t there.
And it felt even better to walk off that field, huddle up with my
friends, and figure out our next play.
Read this and other articles at The Washington Post