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Stop Playing School and Start Teaching

2010 Teacher of the Year asks delegates to take a new look at learning


By Cindy Long

When Sarah Brown Wessling, the 2010 Teacher of the Year, was growing up, she spent a lot of time playing school with the neighborhood kids. They put each other in rows, passed out assignments, and gave each other grades. They told some students they were good, and others they were bad, and her younger brother spent a lot of the time with his head down on his make believe desk.

“Here’s the thing,” she told delegates in her speech at the 2010 NEA RA in New Orleans. “I was playing the game of school, not teaching. And I think our system is playing the game of school.”

Wessling believes that it’s our collective responsibility to transcend the game, and to create places where students thrive because of the system, and not in spite of it by “relearning” the landscape of the classroom.

“What if making a mistake became the new education? What if we started rewarding a process instead of an answer?” she asked. “What if we stopped acting as though everyone were the same and started acting upon our belief that it’s our differences that will ultimately unite us?”

She told the delegates that her message is the message of her students, who ask that we relearn what we thought we knew about our classrooms, and recognize that the best lessons are those they teach us.

Some lessons she’s learned from her students: that frustration is the first step to fruition, that nobility is watching one student bring out the best in another, that the students who sit in the back are often those who need to be in the forefront of her mind, and that can’t doesn’t mean won’t.

She’s learned that students deserve passionate teachers who provide them with every opportunity, but she said educators deserve the same opportunities.

“You are worth more than any pay check or test score. You are worth more than being a pusher of paper, than a ringer of bells,” she said. “You are worth the knowledge that your life’s work cannot be compartmentalized into bubbles and checkboxes; that your students are you life’s work.”



Sarah Brown Wessling, 2010 Teacher of the Year

Sarah Brown Wessling, 2010 Teacher of the Year, addresses delegates at the 2010 NEA Representative Assembly.

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