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Remarks of 2010 Teacher of the Year Sarah Brown Wessling

Transcript of Speech Delivered at the 2010 NEA Representative Assembly

Thank you so much.  Hello, NEA.  Hello, Iowa!

Thank you so much for having me here today.

I have to tell you, it's already been a special couple of days for me.  It is my first time here in New Orleans.  It's my first time at a national Representative Assembly.  And it is my first opportunity to address my fellow NEA members in such an energetic, poised-for-action environment.

More than anything, from one teacher to another, I want to thank you.  I want to thank you for your incredible commitment to students who walk through your doors each day, to thank you for your tireless hours, for your compelling dedication, for your tenacious efforts, to ensure that each child in this country has the access to the kind of public education that can transform him or her.  I know you are each here today because at the end of every decision you make, every issue you champion, you see a student's face.

I will tell you that I am a teacher.  I will also tell you that I am a wife, and a daughter, and a sister, and a friend, and a runner, and a film buff, and I am a mom.

The dream that my husband and I have for our children is the same dream I know we can all share -- that our children need to be recognized for and learn to capitalize on their strengths, not to be judged for their weaknesses, and learn how to challenge those weaknesses so that their potential is infinite.

You know, we are good at remembering our dreams when we are children.  My childhood dreams are always about pursuing my passion.  I imagined that I could spend the rest of my life chasing butterflies.  I imagined that I could spend the rest of my life organizing neighborhood Olympics or playing school.

In fact, my mom tells me there was a lot of playing school in our neighborhood, especially our garage.  We decided who would be the teacher or the student, and because I was the oldest, I usually got to be the teacher.  We put each other in rows, we gave assignments, and we gave grades.  We told each other who was good and who was bad, and my poor younger brother spent most of his time with his head on the desk.

As a teacher looking back on this, I have to tell you that I'm a little bit mortified.  Is that really what school looks like?  Is that really what school is all about? Keeping order, creating systems, giving assignments, giving grades? Here is the thing.  I was "playing" the game of school, not teaching.

I think our system is playing the game of school. 

It is our collective responsibility to transcend that game.  We need to create places where students thrive because of the system, not in spite of it.  Our students are worth the kind of learning that's worth doing.

I love to invite people from the community to our classroom, and oftentimes on a guest's first visit to the classroom, after a few minutes I'll hear, "I couldn't tell if you were the teacher or the student."  Now, I would like to think that maybe this is a nice little boost to my ego, but the truth is it's not because I look like my students, it's because I look like a student.  It's because I'm the lead learner in the classroom.

In order to create the kinds of environments where learning transcends school, we need lead learners in every classroom willing to deconstruct -- not destruct -- deconstruct, and re-learn.

We need to deconstruct the clutter of our days, the bells, the papers, the ten-page cell phone policy, and we need to relearn to wonder.

We need to learn to wonder why.

Then instead of wondering why, we need to wonder why not.  Then after wondering why not, we need to wonder "what if."  This, as I look out at all of you, is a group of professionals dedicated to action.  Your words behind me remind me of that.

We must separate the game of school, the clutter of our learning environments from the actions that will liberate our spaces.                    

Our most important actions are not the assessments we give, the technology we integrate, the mandates we pass.  Our most significant action is the interaction we have with our students.

If we want learning to look different, then we need to hear, see and feel differently, too.  So I thought we could do a little visualization exercise.  What does learning look like in your classroom?  Do you see rows firmly set, keeping teachers and students divided?  Do you hear the silence of a well-ordered room?  Do you feel the weight of           standardized tests in the eyes of naive critics? Or do you see the stacks of books and magazines, student work, like wrapping paper on the walls?

Do you hear the productive whir of students slightly frustrated and compelled to achieve understanding? Do you feel the energy of  questions -- their questions, not ours?  Lead learning doesn't require a red pen.  Rather, it begs for the community whiteboard of Google lore.  In the end, here is what we really need to understand about it.  First of all, it isn't a panacea.  I can't boil it down into a work sheet, and it isn't perfect, but it is real.  It means that I struggle each day to see students as individuals, to know their stories of learning well enough that I don't have to talk about grades at conferences.  I can talk about students, and I can talk about what they learned.  It means that I will cry at night when I can't get Cody to engage for the tenth day in a row.  It means that I will vow to try again tomorrow, try harder to look for his truth and refuse to blame him for who he isn't, but love him for who he is -- a baseball player, a new step-son, and a sophomore who hates English -- today, but maybe not tomorrow.

It means that I am exhausted.  But I am not burned out.  I am not burned out because I am not succombing to the system that was flourishing in my childhood play.  In our classroom, we define the worth of our day, and the worth of our day is based on what we learn.

Our questions, our inquiries, our honesty, our passion.  Lead learning doesn't determine the worth of a moment, day or endeavor based on the answers but rather on the questions that drive us to wonder.  So let's wonder a bit.

What if making a mistake became the new education?  What if we stop schooling our kids out of creativity and started cultivating it?  What if we started rewarding a process instead of an answer?  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?

What if we stop asking, "what are we going to do today?"  And instead ask, "What are we, students and teachers alike, going to learn today?"

I miss my students a lot.  And I'll tell you that my message is their message.  It has been. What I have to say to you today is what my students would say if they were here.

If they were here, they would remind us that when we relearn the landscape of our classrooms, we will hear their voices and take heed that our best lessons are the ones we have allowed them to teach us.  My students have taught me many lessons indeed.

Holly reminded me that frustration is the first step to fruition. Corey inspired me when I let go and saw that nobility is watching one student bring out the best in another. Katie pleaded with her unassuming eyes, but often the student who sits in the back of the room needs to be in the forefront of my mind. John's perseverance solidified that "can't" doesn't mean "won't." Kristen exhausted me, but she also moved me as I learned that anger is best understood through forgiveness. Hannah, with her crazy hair, her too-tight jeans and enough teen angst to fuel those barges convinced me that resistance isn't reticent when the purpose is clear.

I am not a perfect teacher.  I am a real teacher. Teaching isn't a string of success stories for me.  It's also a frustration and confusion and everything that creates texture in my days.  I am not your sage but I can be your poet.

I can give voice to your experiences, to your struggles, to your triumphs because they are mine, too.  We know our students are worth the kinds of learning experiences that are innovative, individualized, and driven by passionate educators.

We know they deserve every opportunity to become self-actualized.  But so do you.

You are worth more than any paycheck or test score. You are worth more than being a pusher of paper, a ringer of bells.  You are worth the knowledge that your life's work cannot be compartmentalized into bubbles and check boxes, that your students are your life's work.

It's worth knowing that when your students ask that question, when they make that connection, when they teach because you've inspired them, it's your moment of grace, indelibly etched on their tomorrow.
Thank you.


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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