Three lessons from my students to start the new year

By Cicely Woodard, 2017-18 Tennessee Teacher of the Year


As a teacher, I get the privilege of inspiring students, motivating them to be their best selves, and facilitating a learning environment filled with memorable learning experiences. Even though my job is to teach them, every day my students share lessons with me that help me to live better. As we start 2018, I reflect on three lessons that I have learned from my students that will sustain me as I have the honor of serving as the Tennessee Teacher of the Year.

Be bold and confident.

This past December, I had the opportunity to see some of my students perform in a school play. The five eighth graders who participated are all stellar students with a quiet sense of leadership that makes them a joy to teach. So you can imagine my surprise when I saw them on stage performing in an auditorium full of people. They were brilliant, confident, poised, proud, and so much fun to watch. They performed knowing that their part was significant to the success of the production. As teachers, we have a unique perspective on what is best for students and a responsibility to share that perspective. We can write, share our voices with policy makers and other shareholders, give speeches, serve on panels, or advocate for students in our own school buildings. For me this is not always comfortable, but this year I will remember the lesson that I learned from my student performers. Boldly step out of your comfort zone, because as a teacher your voice matters.

Maintain some balance.

It’s basketball season, and at West End Middle, we have two amazing teams. Students on our basketball teams understand the importance of succeeding in the classroom as well as on the court. They work hard during the school day, but they also play hard after school during practice and at games. They understand balance, and they are intentional about maintaining it. As teachers we work tremendously hard at ensuring that our students are prepared for their futures. Teaching is a demanding, time-consuming job. Although managing the demands of teaching is challenging, I plan to work tremendously hard at maintaining some balance. For me that is exercising 3-4 times per week, daily prayer and devotion, quality time with my family, reading for pleasure, and rest. Being intentional about maintaining some balance will make me better in all aspects of my life and especially better for my students.

Try something new.

Each week at our school we have inquirer time. Teachers sponsor clubs and students choose how to spend the last 35 minutes of the school week. There are so many different choices: soccer, coloring, basketball, football, the culture of hip-hop, classic films, and dance to name a few. Inquirer time is a wonderful way for us to get to know each other even though we may not have classes together. I sponsor the dance club and each week the students in my group stretch, do some across the floor moves, and learn a short piece of choreography. The students come with varying levels of experience, yet all of them engage with my choreography for the first time—and do it with curious anticipation. This year I am committing to trying something new like the dancers in my group. As teachers sometimes we get stuck in a rut, but there is a fresh excitement that comes with preparing for and trying something new. Whether it’s a new lesson, a different field trip, a new class goal, a new professional or personal learning experience or even making a new friend, our students deserve teachers who try new ideas.

In 2018, I am committed to living the lessons that I have learned from my students. I will boldly and confidently share my student-focused ideas, because teacher voice matters. I will maintain some balance, so that I can be better for myself and others. I will try something new, because my students deserve it.


Cicely Woodard began her teaching career in 2003 as a middle school math teacher in Metro Nashville Public Schools, and she currently teaches eighth-grade math at West End Middle Prep. Cicely believes that learning math can help her students face life’s challenges with confidence. She served as the inaugural coordinator for the State Collaborative on Reforming Education’s Tennessee Educator Fellowship, collaborated with the Tennessee Department of Education and Instruction Partners to facilitate training for teachers, and is a 2017 State-Level Finalist for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. Cicely is the 2017-18 Tennessee Teacher of the Year.