There’s a Story to Tell: Reflections from the 2017 Teacher of the Year

By Derek Voiles, 2016-17 Tennessee Teacher of the Year


As I try to take this tremendous, whirlwind of an experience and condense it into a short reflection for sharing, I fall back on what I know—and that’s being an English Language Arts teacher. I think to myself, this experience has the makings of a great story. Allow me to share my story elements.

The exposition of this story is a flashback to the past of our main character, a young boy from Mohawk, Tennessee, surrounded by people who made him read, made him learn, made him work hard, and made him think of a world bigger than his backyard. It was these people, who propelled him onto a path that would eventually lead to a career as a teacher.

Fast-forward to a night no one saw coming where the state commissioner of education announces that he is the 2017 Tennessee Teacher of the Year, and our big adventure begins.

Our story takes us through many unbelievable settings. We visit classrooms, conference rooms, banquet halls, and lecture halls across the state of Tennessee where we meet the most incredible, hard-working educators from amazingly diverse backgrounds, all with the idea that today’s student can and will change the world.

There’s the chapter that takes place in San Diego, the chapter in Dallas, Texas, at the dinner table with celebrity and teacher advocate Renee Zelwegger, in a feedback session with Betsy DeVos, and the one where our main character floats through ZERO GRAVITY… At space camp!

And then, there’s the big climax…

Our main character gets the opportunity to walk into the White House, into the Oval Office, and represent Tennessee teachers when shaking the hands of the President and First Lady of the United States. In that pivotal scene, 55 Teachers of the Year seize the opportunity to speak for their constituents and even ask permission to sing what the NAACP calls the “Negro National Anthem,” Lift Every Voice and Sing.

But there’s a twist…

As it turns out, that incredible scene is not the climax at all. The climax, the pinnacle, the BEST part of the story is that our main character gets to walk back into an amazing school, drink a great cup of coffee, put on a smile, and work with the most extraordinary students.

In the falling action of our story, our main character realizes, that opportunity is even greater than the amazing things he has experienced over the last year.

That’s why our main character – that’s why I became a teacher. Because there is more promise, more potential, and more spark in the eyes of my students than there is in any Oscar-Winning Actor or Leader of the Free World. And they make it all worth it.

That’s what makes the Teacher of the Year title so very special, when we honor teachers and the art of teaching. You may not have a formal title, but you are “a teacher of the year” for your students. And that title of a teacher holds the power for the students who will be waiting for you when you walk in with your coffee, your energy, and your ability to change lives. You have “a year with them” – 180 days to make it happen! Every teacher across this great state has a story worth telling.

It has been my distinct honor to be the 2017 Tennessee Teacher of the Year. But it is my daily privilege to be a teacher. And I’ve been both humbled and proud to serve my students and my state.

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