What Are The Non-negotiable Traits For A “Teacher of the Year”?

I’m sitting here ready to write my annual recommendation for someone who I really feel exemplifies a “Teacher of the Year”. I don’t take this lightly at all. I probably put more thought into this than most people, but if it is to be an authentic honor that maintains a reputation of respectability, then it SHOULD be given great consideration.

Just think about the very words: Teacher Of The YEAR! OF THE YEAR! The number one, best, most outstanding and deserving person in an entire SCHOOL? What would be the traits and the accomplishments of someone who deserves this recognition over ALL of the OTHER teachers in a school or district?

Wow. If every person REALLY weighs these lofty and noble considerations before writing a recommendation, then it will be clear that a Teacher of the Year is someone who goes WAY above and beyond and is a shining example of excellence in teaching, leadership, selflessness, and professional learning. It’s not a popularity contest and it can’t be a consolation prize. Awarding this honor for any of the wrong reasons “dumbs down” the award – and everyone in the organization will not only know it, but lose respect and hope for the very title of Teacher of The Year. The legitimacy will remain tarnished for years. So choose wisely, young Jedi.

If you’re writing a recommendation for someone, or if you’re on some sort of evaluative team that considers nominations, I beseech you to look deep and be intensely respectful of the title Teacher of The Year. It’s our collective responsibility to keep the integrity of this honor intact.

  • Above and Beyond: This is a person who volunteers and shows up for all kinds of things. He is at the fundraisers and the pep rallies. She volunteers to lead workshops or coordinate assemblies. He comes up with new programs or ideas that benefit the whole school or organization – and then leads that charge to fruition. This person does education things during non-contract time (YES, even weekends and summers) because teaching is her PASSION….and everyone knows it.
  • Team Player: You’ll see this person spreading positivity with a can-do attitude! Someone who is the Teacher Of The Year strives to lift others up, builds the capacity of other teachers, and shares recognition for team accomplishments. This person shares – a lot! He joins committees willingly and everyone can attest to the fact that he is an enthusiastic participant. She invites others into decision-making. He is a cheerleader for his colleagues. She feels more successful when the department/ team/grade achieves goals than when she achieves them alone.
  • Lifelong Learner: Without a doubt, this is a non-negotiable necessity for ANYONE I ever nominate for Teacher of the Year. You cannot be an outstanding educator if you’re not continually updating your own learning. And I don’t mean those things your district provides. It’s got to go beyond the mandatory stuff, because a truly deserving teacher OF THE YEAR (think about the weight of those words again) is that person in school who finds the optional, on-your-own-time, just-because-you-really-❤️-education kind of learning. A REAL Teacher of The Year seeks out his own PD – college classes, conferences, edcamps, webinars, professional organizations, educator blogs, cultivates a PLN, and more. Most importantly – he or she is a CONNECTED educator…one who frequently communicates and collaborates with many other educators outside of the district.
  • Leadership: This person volunteers for committees. This person signs up to mentor new teachers. Other people go to this teacher to learn how to do new things. This teacher tries to stay cutting edge with technology and current best practices – and then teaches those things to his peers. This person takes advantage of every “optional” opportunity and then has a way of persuading others to join, too.
  • Innovation: A worthy Teacher of the Year candidate is widely known throughout the school as someone who oozes creativity. Very literally, he or she innovates. She finds new ideas at workshops or on social media, modifies it so it works for her school, and takes a leap of faith to implement something new! He is a risk-taker, a trier of new things, a go-getter, and an idea guy. She has crazy ideas at all hours of the night and comes to school having formulated highly-detailed plans to make it all work. He eagerly puts ideas into practice. She braves new worlds and has an adventurous spirit. Others in the school frequently comment about how clever or creative she is and ask, “How does she even have time to THINK of all this stuff?” He is transformational and a change-maker.

As I said at the beginning, I take this Teacher of the Year business seriously. It matters to the future of the profession and certainly to the future of this distinction. When you sit down to write a nomination this year for a TRULY worthy and deserving person, I hope that you’ll remember this post and my list of non-negotiables. I hope you reflect and add a few other criteria of your own. I’d love it if you would share them with me. I’ll look forward to your comments, thoughts, suggestions, and stories.

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Celebrate & Elevate The Experts Within

🔵 Universal truth in education #1: There is never enough time for professional development.

I connect with educators and leaders all over the world and this is one of the most widely-known conundrums we face in every country, district, and school.

🔵 Universal truth in education #2: Educators want to be able to choose PD that is meaningful and appropriate for them. Yes, they actually want the autonomy to select their own learning.

So many districts insist on bringing in gurus and paying thousands of dollars for each “show” in which these experts spray their enlightened methods upon an audience of teachers. We pull teachers from classrooms, sometimes for several days, and we pay even MORE thousands of dollars to substitutes to cover these classes. Teachers then dutifully sit and get anointed with the topic that has administrators have deemed appropriate for the masses. No choice and no voice equals disengagement, lack of relevance, and resentment over time lost.

🔵 Universal truth in education #3: There are qualified expert teachers in every single school who do creative, research-based, tried and true, pedagogically sound amazing things every single day.

Schools can save thousands upon thousands of dollars every single year if administration recognizes that there is plenty of know-how, expertise, and ambition right within its own school walls. When it comes to PD, there needs to be significantly more reliance on home-grown over nationally-known.

🔴 Herein lies the opportunity for a perfectly symbiotic solution. Celebrate and elevate the leaders within.

I’d like to share two ideas that I was recently able to introduce into two of our district’s elementary schools. Neither idea is mine, and I’ll attach credit for the inspiration for each of these ideas in the descriptions below.

Last year, the schools in our district each actively pursued a certification known as Future Ready NJ. Each school had a truly dynamic site-based team that met regularly to collaboratively and reflectively evaluate their school on a series of indicators. During this process, a few of the teams realized and discussed the universal truths that I outlined above. They lamented about how there is never enough time, they shared their cravings for continuous learning and growth, and they desperately hoped that someone would listen to their yearning to choose individually-relevant PD. Coupled with the fact that these teams were comprised of teachers who clearly have the capability and the drive to be leaders, I suggested a couple of ideas:

1️⃣ One Small Thing

This idea was born out of the TeachMeet model. Originally created in the United Kingdom, a TeachMeet is an informal but structured gathering of educators willing to share clever ideas. The idea is for participants to volunteer to share an idea in their choice of time increments – 2, 5, or 7 minutes. I’ve attended one of these in England, and I’ve also attended several in the US, and I suppose they’re all similar but take on their own “rules”. My favorite has been the huge TeachMeet that is run by my friends Kyle and Liz Calderwood, William King and Allen Martin at ISTE each year. They always reserve quite a large room, have a podium & projector set up, and just welcome any attendees who pop in throughout the day to fill out a card indicating their presentation length and topic. As the day goes on, they just call these volunteers to the front one by one, setting a timer and just letting the presentations happen! This is one of my favorite things at ISTE every year because I absolutely love learning this way – quick little rapid-fire snippets of great ideas one after the other from all sorts of creative people who just have one small thing to share!

It’s this notion of One Small Thing that I shared with a Future Ready NJ team at Wedgwood Elementary School. I told them the story of TeachMeet and suggested that it could easily be replicated at their school by setting aside time at the beginning of any faculty meeting and giving voice to any staff member who might volunteer “One Small Thing.”

The team loved the idea and added it to their Future Ready Wish List of things they’d like to see happen during this school year. For the November meeting, the principal supported this request by advertising it as a voluntary pre-faculty meeting option. Teachers were invited to come 25 minutes before the official start of the faculty meeting, and I was pleased to see about 15 people take advantage of the opportunity!

One teacher got the ball rolling by sharing One Small Thing that she had gotten from Pinterest. It’s called an “I Need” Box. She keeps it in her room along with some colorful note cards, and students know that they can write private communications to their teacher about anything they need, and that she will privately respond to them in due time. This teacher shared that she has had students ask for extra help when everyone else seems to be understanding the lesson, ask to have a seat moved, ask for school supplies that their parents can’t afford, and even just ask to have some private time to talk to the teacher about how to handle various issues at home.

Needlessly to say, the rest of the room was glad to know of this One Small Thing, and then the ideas started flowing. We heard from about 7 different teachers by the end, and I have a feeling that this will gain more and more momentum now that teachers know that:

  • their voices are respected and valued
  • they can serve as thought leaders
  • they can learn a lot each other in very little time
  • there are all kinds of different experts on faculty with tried and tested, powerful ideas to share
  • presentations don’t have to involve prep work or be a big deal – just 1, 2, or 5 minutes is all it takes to inspire colleagues and spark ideas

(Click HERE for my favorite blog post about TeachMeets – by Naomi Ward, 2014.)

Teachers became inspired to share and to respectfully learn from each other

The “I Need” Box, which gives students a private way to communicate things that they don’t feel comfortable saying out loud or in front of classmates

2️⃣ The Pineapple Chart

Again, this idea is not mine – it’s just something I shared with a Future Ready NJ team at another one of our schools, Bells Elementary School. They were another ambitious group looking for solutions to the same problem….fitting in PD and giving informal leadership opportunities to the talented folks in the building. I mentioned something called The Pineapple Chart, and nobody had ever heard of it.

I first learned of The Pineapple Chart from a blog called Cult of Pedagogy by Jennifer Gonzales. Click HERE to read the article that explains the origin and premise of The Pineapple Chart. It’s also an idea that is widely and positively shared on Twitter. I’ve been following success stories about Pineapple Charts for years, and I am excited that we have a school with teachers brave enough to put their ideas out there and learn from one another! Last week, I stayed late one day to create the Pineapple Chart that is pictured below. Again, this idea is supported by the building principal, who is an advocate for celebrating the strengths of her staff. She is planning to present this model to the teachers at the next faculty meeting, and I can’t wait to write future follow-up posts about the fantastic things that result from this new-to-us PD model!

This is truly the idea of “celebrating and elevating the experts within.” Putting one’s name on a Pineapple Chart requires a certain amount of vulnerability by welcoming anyone into the classroom to see an idea. More importantly, it relies on a high degree of excitement and pride about the experiences one’s students are having – and hoping others find inspiration in those ideas!

Teachers write their name in the day/time block and also write the topic, skill, tool, or ideas that they welcome others to come in and observe.