By Derek Voiles, 2016-17 Tennessee Teacher of the Year
I could tell you about a number of experiences that have truly shaped who I am as a teacher, but there was one experience in particular that has had the most profound effect on me.
One summer my team and I were visiting the homes of incoming seventh-graders. The purpose of these visits was to greet the student and parent, gift the student with some basic supplies and school “swag,” and start off the year on a positive note. What I could not imagine was how these visits would impact me. On this particular visit, this kind mother greeted us warmly and then quietly closed the front door behind us with the tug of a rope—not a doorknob, but a rope.
That was the day I realized teaching is more than a job—it’s a moral imperative. The worn-down walls of this apartment, the makeshift crate that served as a coffee table, the noise from the other side of the wall—these were my competitors. And if I were going to be up for the struggle, it was going to take training, research, and a team to win. Victory meant opportunity for this child and many like him. The stakes were too high to lose.
For so many of the kids I teach, the only way out of poverty is a tremendous education. A decent education, a good enough education, neither of those will do. What it takes is a series of engaging and rigorous classroom experiences. And as teachers, we only have a 180-day shot to make that happen.
We don’t research strategies, attend professional learning, or type lesson plans on the weekend because we necessarily like it, we do it because it’s what they so desperately need. This work can literally change lives.
I have had the privilege of observing and working with great teachers. They are easy to spot. Great teachers don’t just say “all means all,” they don’t just talk about high expectations; they live and breathe these things in the way that they work, sweat, and hustle for kids every day. They’re more than classroom teachers; they’re school teachers and community leaders. And they know that this hustle is the only way to break the cycle for some kids.
I often refer to the text “Superman and Me” that so many Tennessee teachers studied in our state summer training a couple of years ago. In it, Sherman Alexie says, “I throw my weight against their locked doors…I am trying to save our lives.” Whether they come from a home where the door is held closed with a dead bolt, a chain, or a rope, we as Tennessee teachers are tasked with breaking down doors—doors that represent barriers to success—so all students have the opportunity to succeed in school and life.
So yes, it may just be today’s strategy or this week’s plans, or next week’s complex text that we work on day after day, but what it really is, is a brick paver in a road that can lead to anywhere. The possibilities are endless. But it starts with us.
As I look to the year ahead, I hope to help shape conversation around how we must have high expectations for our students, for ourselves, and for each other.
Derek Voiles is a seventh-grade English language arts teacher at Lincoln Heights Middle School and is currently serving as the 2016-17 Tennessee Teacher of the Year.