Reflections as Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year

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Karen Vogelsang with President Barack Obama in the White House Oval Office.

Karen Vogelsang is the 2014-15 Tennessee Teacher of the Year. She currently teaches fourth grade at Riverwood Elementary in Shelby County. In this post, Karen shares reflections on her experience as the Teacher of the Year.

By Karen Vogelsang

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Karen reacts and she realizes she was chosen as Teacher of the Year

I never thought that I would be Teacher of the Year, but here I am, and what an incredible year it’s been.  When I was nominated by my peers at school, I thought that was an incredible honor never to be matched since  I am surrounded by amazing teachers at my school.  Then to learn a couple of months later that I was the district Elementary Teacher of the Year was even more of a surprise.  Shelby County Schools is the largest district in the state, and I started to wonder if they made a mistake.  When I was chosen to represent the Southwest CORE region I was shocked, but excited about the opportunity because I was going to be on the department’s inaugural  Teacher Advisory Council.  This council of 12 teachers serves as the voice for educators across the state, collaborating with the Tennessee Department of Education.  Over the years I have worked with many teachers who had questions and concerns about their profession, and I felt privileged to share their voices. Suffice it to say that when Commissioner Huffman read one of my recommendation letters last year, I was in tears and could not believe my name was called as Tennessee Teacher of the Year.

As I reflect on my journey to becoming the teacher of the year and more specifically, what this past year has been like, it boils down to one word: relationships.

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Karen poses with some of the other state Teachers of the Year during her visit to Washington, D.C.

Over the past thirteen years, my journey as a teacher has allowed me to cross paths with incredible professionals in a field that I love.  Before I ever taught my first class, I met Kristy Ford, who became my unofficial mentor and helped me have the best first year of teaching I could imagine.  Then I met Emily Underwood, who became, as I call her, my teaching partner in crime.  We have taught at the same schools since our teaching journeys began.  We have team taught, built an outdoor classroom, wrote environmental curriculum, and compared notes with one another every day for the past 12 years.  There are countless others that space won’t allow me to mention, but each one has made me a better educator.  I have learned more from the collaborative experiences I’ve had than any book I’ve ever read.  All that came about because we built relationships to support one another in this profession we love.

This past year, I have met 54 amazing educators from around the world.  The 2015 Teachers of the Year come from a variety of instructional settings;  Steve is a CTE shop teacher in Illinois, Christy is an art teacher in Florida, and Kathy is a blind English teacher in Indiana.  I have learned a lot over the past year, but I can’t tell you about a specific instructional strategy or a great new resource.  However, I can tell you that I have made new, life-long friends.

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Karen works with a small group of 4th grade students

This past month I began a new school year with 23 fourth graders. When the year is over they might not remember exactly what I taught them, but they are going to remember how I made them feel.  Teaching is all about relationships and as you embark on your new school year, think about the relationships you are building with your students and your colleagues.  Are they going to see a smiling face that’s excited about where they are today? There is no doubt that there are many challenges,  but the bottom line is that what matters in life are the relationships we build with one another.  As Albert Einstein once said, “From the standpoint of daily life… there is one thing we do know: that man is here for the sake of other men.”

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