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Address by the National Teacher of the Year

An address to the 1994 RA by Sandra McBrayer, the national teacher of the year, given at New Orleans, Louisiana to the NEA Representative Assembly on July 5, 1994:

It’s wonderful to come home to teachers, it’s interesting. I’m not sure if many of you know, but when I was asked to fill out an application for the teacher of the year, I said, “No, No, No, I don’t have time. I’m too busy, I have a class you know.”   And over the years my superintendent kept asking me to fill it out.

One day I happened to catch the paper and saw that Miss America had just won her title, and she got $50,000 and a Ferrari. And I was filling out that application for teacher of the year the next day, because I knew that was a lot of money.

Well, in reality, I received a set of encyclopedias. Now I have to say I whined a little bit, and I complained, and I went to my superintendent and I might have said, “It’s not fair,” and he said to me, “Sandy, you have to make your own award.”

So I learned. What does that mean, my own award? He taught me this really cool trick. He said moments before you walk on stage, you find the wealthiest person in the room, and you ask to borrow their watch. Now if it’s a really good watch, you forget to return it.

I don’t know if I should tell you what you need to hear, or what you want to hear. I don’t know if I should talk about the extended school day. If I should talk about women’s rights. If I should talk about equitable education.

But there are things I want to talk about. Things that are important to me. Things about children.

You see, when I found out I was going to speak here, I started looking at speeches of other people, trying to help me with a message to you. I looked at a speech from President Clinton, and he started talking about goals.

And I looked at Colin Powell for advice, and in his speeches he often talks about potential. I looked at Janet Reno, and she talks about persistence and decision making. I looked at Secretary Riley and he talked about effort.

They all forgot something, they forgot you, they forgot teachers and they forgot children. They didn’t say you are the backbone of our country, they didn’t say that without you we cannot exist in this country.

It is true that I teach homeless children who live n the streets, the kids to whom schools have said, “we don’t need you, we don’t want you.” Kids who have said to public schools, “you don’t have what I need to survive.”

You see, I teach children that our society doesn’t even want to know exist, children that people don’t even want to know live. Think about that for a moment.

In San Diego, there are 1,500 homeless children on our streets on any given night. In Chicago, where I was just recently, they have 7,000 homeless children on their street on any given night. And what do I mean when I say children?

I’m talking about unattended youth, children who live on their own on the streets, children between the ages of 12 and 19 who literally live on rooftops and abandoned buildings, who live under freeways, who live with pimps and johns and chicken hawks — children who have no hope for the future.

You know, I look at a saying on the wall that says you can’t look into a sick child’s eyes and not care. You can’t look into any child’s eyes and not care.

I’m going across this country with two messages and it’s interesting, because I find that my messages are scaring people who are not into education.

But you see, the first message I have is that all children, all children, have a right to an education in our country. And you notice there was a period at the end of that sentence; I didn’t say anything else.

And the other thing that I believe in is that all children have the ability to learn. Every child who walks into our school has the ability to learn. Never will I believe that there is a child who cannot learn.

You see, I teach kids called throwaways. A throwaway: a child who has come home from school and their parents have moved.

I teach a young man by the name of Andrea Jacobs. Andrea came home from school one day and he knocked on the door to his dad’s apartment, and no one answered. And a neighbor came over and said, “Andrea what are you doing here? Your dad moved this morning.”

That was two days before Christmas last year. Ladies and gentlemen, Andrea’s never seen his father again.

I teach kids who literally have been abandoned. I teach children who are so physically and sexually abused that they cannot survive. Throwaway kids. Children who are pregnant and are told, “As long as you are pregnant you cannot live here”.

I often tell this story of Anna. When Anna was 14 years old, ladies and gentlemen, she was raped. The religious beliefs in her family told her she could not terminate the pregnancy, but her mom told her she could not live at home as long as she was pregnant. I met Anna on the streets at 14 trying to live.

I teach a young man by the name of Corey. Corey wears size 54 pants. Most of his family wears the same size. But when Corey was 16 years old, his parents told him, “You cost too much to feed,” and he was thrown out.

It’s a phenomenon that’s happening across this state. I was just in Columbus, Ohio and I saw the same thing, children who were told they cost too much to feed, and are sent to the street.

I teach children who are gay — that’s a scary thing for people to talk about. I don’t care what you believe. You have taken the role of a teacher to protect all kids. Thank you.

You see, we are teachers, we’re there for everybody. Our schools are there for everybody.

Think about a young man by the name of Jeff. Jeff was in his second semester of high school. Senior year, he was this close to graduating.

Jeff didn’t wake up one moment and was gay. He had been gay for a long time. But one day in school he got beat up, and he went to his teacher, and his teacher looked at him and said, “Well, Jeff, look at the way you act.” His teacher did not protect him.

And about three weeks later, Jeff got beat up again. This time, he went to his school counselor. His school counselor said to him, “Well, can’t you dress a little different? Maybe it might help.”

The third time Jeff was beat up it was by his father, who told him he was not man enough to live in the home. I met Jeff, at 17 years old living on the streets, living in a park — a senior in high school prostituting in order to feed himself, because we forgot to stand up for him, because we forgot to protect him.

He was thrown away. He was thrown away by his family. He was thrown away by this society. And he was thrown away by his school.

If we do not stand up, who will? If we are not the ones to take the lead, we have seen that there is no one else, that there is no one else standing up for kids.

I teach children who attend my school who are so physically and sexually abused they honestly believe that it is safer under a bridge. They honestly believe it is safer with a pimp than in their own home.

I’m talking about kids like Tina, who was sold to a crack house at the age of 13 to pay her mom’s bill to the crack dealer. Tina sexually served anyone who came for their drugs to be cut.

Tina thought it was her new home. She didn’t know that’s not what life was about.

I teach a girl who has an iron imprinted on her stomach. Because she did not iron her clothes correctly, her mom taught her a lesson.

I teach a young man by the name of Chris whose father plays an interesting game. Every night he takes a cigar and he burns Chris’s arm with it.

And if Chris screams, he’s a chicken and needs to sleep on the street. If Chris takes it like a man, he’s more than welcomed to spend the night in a garage.

Why am I telling you? People in the audience are saying, “I’m not a homeless teacher. Every one of my children went to public school.”

Every one of my kids are your kids, so it makes them our kids.

I read an article once about myself, and it said I was a revolutionary and I cried. I cried — you know why — because a “revolutionary” means that I’m by myself, that I’m alone.

And yet I can cry again because I look at this room and see that I’m not alone, that there are dedicated professionals, that there are people who are willing to risk and reach, willing to not accept the norm or the status quo.

I guess that’s one of my messages to you, the NEA members. Never accept the status quo. Just because it has not been done before doesn’t mean you can’t do it.

Just because there’s a rule or a law, doesn’t mean you can’t break it in two. I’m asking you to reach.

You see, an interesting thing happened when I started teaching homeless kids. I found out that they were hungry. And I can remember going to my district and saying, “My kids are hungry, I need to feed them.”

And they got this really cool white book out. It was called the Education Code. In California, there were 19 volumes. Now there are only 15 — I’ve gotten to four and burned them. I’m still working on it.

You see, they took that book and opened it and the said, “well, are you Chapter 1? Are you Headstart?”

They started going down a list, and I didn’t fit. They said I couldn’t feed my kids because it wasn’t in the book.

So I learned very quickly. I said, “Wait a minute, I teach home economics. Every morning I asked them what they want to eat — that’s a menu planning.”

We’ve got a kitchen now. I feed my kids.

I remember my kids starting to come to school, and I have to say they smelled a little funny. I got tired of teaching with my nose all crinkled up. So I said to my district, “I need showers.”

And they took out that cool white book again, and they looked up all those things that I wasn’t.

They came back to say, “You don’t fit. You can’t have showers.”

And then I thought of something else. I teach physical education twice a day. We’ve got showers now.

I teach children that we call system kids — kids we have forgotten, kids to whom we have said, “We will house you, we will clothe you.”

But we forget to parent. We forget what our responsibility is, to produce a productive adult, to produce young people who believe in themselves and believe in their community and their country.           

System kids come to me with no knowledge of the real world. I read a report, a sorry report, from CNN that said every year our system releases 60,000 kids to the street that it can’t afford to care for. Just out on the streets.

I think, what do system kids know? They don’t know how to love; they don’t know how to respect. They certainly don’t know how to communicate.

When I was very young, about last year, I took a group of system kids to a museum. And it was interesting. You see, I have this thing in my pocket. It’s called museum etiquette.

No matter what I’m wearing, I’ve got museum etiquette. Whenever I walk into a museum, I walk a little slower, I speak a little softer, and I don’t touch a thing.

I didn’t know system kids didn’t have this museum etiquette, and I took them to a natural history museum. I failed as a teacher, because I didn’t listen. I didn’t question.

There was a pendulum that swung back and forth and it knocked over dominoes to tell you what time it is. My kids thought you were supposed to swing it to see how many dominos knocked over before it stopped swinging.

There was a polar bear; it was huge. It had no rope, it had no fence. It does now. It didn’t then.

I had shown them a film on a man with a shark tooth necklace. They thought, wouldn’t it be cool to have a polar bear tooth necklace? So they kind of climbed up it a little bit.

I had my name tag off, I was no longer going by “Sandy.” I didn’t know who that Sandy girl was, but thought she had better control those kids.

They came to show me a skull they had picked up from a wooden box. They wanted to know if it was a product of a drive-by. You see, that is the reality of children all over this country. What do they see every day?

I teach in a university, and I ask new teachers to park three blocks from the school they are going to teach and walk to campus, to see what their kids see, to understand the look on their face when they finally get to the campus.

Think about what the teachers at my site see. They see children being sold for $5. They see pimps, they see drunks and winos. My children have to walk over them every day to get to class.

They see what we as a world don’t even want to believe exists.

It’s not in another country, it’s not San Diego’s problem or California’s problem. It’s everywhere.

In every city I travel to, I can find it in 30 minutes. I have people in that city say, “Wow, I never knew that was there.”

In every city I go to, there are homeless children who have been thrown away or who have escaped, and who we have tossed to the streets.

It’s not about San Diego. It’s about children. It’s about believing. It’s about reaching.

I think of a young girl name Tina — you know, when I met her at 13 with that crack house. Every teacher who had ever had her had given up on her.

They said she can’t learn, listen to her. I did listen; she talked about my momma more than I did. I started asking her how to spell some of those things.

But I kept trying, because I believed. I kept saying, “It’s all right Tina, let’s try again.” I didn’t say that I only work six and three quarter hours a day. I was there all the time.

Teaching isn’t about a contract. It’s about a belief. Teaching isn’t about a textbook. It’s not about average daily attendance. It’s not about the class test.

It’s about believing. It’s about reaching.

What is my message to you? It’s Tina. Tina graduated from high school with me and she went on to college.

As an educator that’s supposed to be my level of success, I was happy. But that wasn’t my level of success.

You see, Tina had a baby during the time she was in school. But what happened was that Tina started treating her child much like she herself was treated.

She started hitting her, pulling her hair, dragging her around. Day in and day out, I said, “Sweetheart, there are other ways to discipline. You don’t have to hit your child.”

You know, I didn’t find that in my curriculum, I didn’t find that in my core framework, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t teach it. And every day I would tell her that.

I never thought Tina listened until about two years ago, when I saw Tina getting on the trolley with her daughter. And I came up behind Tina to say hello, but there was a woman standing at the trolley and she was hitting her kid.

I listened to Tina lean forward and say, “Excuse me lady, there’s other ways to discipline, you don’t have to hit.”

The point I’m trying to make is this. I looked in my textbooks. I went back to my colleges. I even looked at my contract. There was so much left out that I was finding myself doing every day.

But I didn’t stop doing just because it wasn’t there. I knew it was the right thing. I knew it was the best thing.

In California in the last 20 years, we’ve built 28 prisons and jails and one university. Tell me where the expectations of my state are.

I need your help, I need you to believe. I need you to risk and reach all children, each and every day.

In California, I received a letter from the Department of Education with three questions on it. The first question said, “Are homeless children innately capable of graduating from high school?” And the third question said, “Are homeless children innately capable of going to college?”

My college taught me well; I knew what “innately” meant. Whether it’s homeless kids, whether it’s children of color, whether it’s gay kids, whether it’s obese kids, whether it’s special ed kids, there are people in our world who believe they don’t deserve an education.

There are people in our world who don’t believe they have the ability to learn. And we must stand up. We must be the ones who carry the torch.

We cannot now or ever accept the role of a victim. Never can we say, “It’s never been done.” We must say, “We will try.” We must say, “We will reach.”

We must say that we have the power to be different. I’m asking you to be different. I’m different. As a matter of fact, I’m real different.

I found out how different I was. I’ll tell you a funny story. When I was named one of the four finalists for the Untied States teacher of the year, I was flown back to Washington, D.C., and I had 15 interviews in a four-day period.

They wanted to see if I had stamina. But during one of the interviews, they asked me a question. They said, “What advice would you give a new teacher?” and I thought for about a second and a half. Maybe two. I said, “Never startle a man going to pee.”

You see, I teach at the corner of Thirteenth and Market. And in any city you are from, you know what your Market Street looks like. I don’t know how that happens, but it’s always in a bad neighborhood.

I have a plate glass window behind my head, behind my desk. It’s darkened so you can see out and not see in. And next to my desk is a little alcove kind of thing. And for some reason, the men think it’s okay to step into this alcove and urinate, which means it’s by my head.

Now, they think that the room is empty. But it’s hell on a science lesson. It destroys any literature I’m reading at the moment when this happens.

And one day this man was urinating in my alcove and I was teaching literature. And Madeline Hunter’s six-step lesson plan could not save it, I’m sorry.

But I realized as he continued to urinate — and I swear it was 30 minutes — I had to go out and ask him to stop, so I opened the door ever so carefully, and I said, “Excuse me sir,” and he turned.

I have given that advice to new teachers, and no one else has had to have their shoes cleaned. Needless to say, the committee said, “You’re not a regular teacher are you?” I looked at my credentials. “Regular” wasn’t on there.

Ladies and Gentlemen, in a couple of months 88,000 school doors are going to open. Some 42.6 million children are going to enter those school doors. That’s 600,000 more than last year. About 6.2 million of those are going to be limited English speakers, 4.6 million are going to be physically challenged. 2 million of them are not going to speak a word of English, over 1 million of them are going to be abused and battered. About 500,000 are going to be homeless, living on the street somewhere.

It is not about your kids and my kids. It’s about our kids. It’s not about waking up and saying you’re going to teach. It’s about waking up and saying, “I’m going to change the course of a life. I’m going to change the course of a city and a state and country. It’s about making a difference.

My children are dying every day. If we do not stand up for them, they will continue. About a week ago in a speech that I gave, I mentioned I had lost four kids since December.

I flew home last Saturday, because one of my kids was stabbed to death. And I was given about four hours in my schedule to try to talk to my other kids. I sat in a funeral home with my students and I looked around, and you know what I thought? I wondered who was next. I wondered who I was going to fly home to next and put under the ground.

No child should die without being loved, without being respected. No child should die without someone believing that they’re the most important person in the world.

That’s what education is about. You want to see your test scores go up. You want to be the best in math and science. You want your kids to go to college.

Respect them, listen to them. Don’t ever be afraid to love them. Give them what you need.

I have never had a child enter my program and say, “No thanks, Sandy, I’ve had enough love this week. I don’t need any.”

I’m asking you to believe. You see, this is what education is about. It’s about caring for the souls of children. Every day they enter our school campuses and say, “Believe in me.”

“Protect me,” they say, “Empower me and nurture me.” They say, “Don’t tell me I’m not on the right page on the right day or the right line. Don’t tell me what my brother and sister did last year. Tell me I can own the world. Tell me I’m somebody.”

I want to tell you a story of another girl. In third grade she got arrested for the first time. You notice I said the first time. She learned that if she got taken home in handcuffs, she got an awful lot of attention.

So she continued that pattern. In sixth grade, she was suspended from school. She caused a strike because she didn’t agree with the rules of the school. And in ninth grade, she got in one too many fights, because she thought that was the way to solve a conflict.

In high school, a school counselor wrote her a note, and the note said, “Why are you wasting our time?” She left school and she got home and she went back.

You know why she went back? Because they got her angry, and that’s why she graduated.

 She graduated because she said, “You can’t win. I can do this.” And she went to college —the first of six kids to ever go to college. She graduated, and, on the graduation field, there were 7,500 other graduates.

She turned to the man next to her with the little cap and gown on and she said, “Boy, did I trick this school.” You see, she believed she wasn’t intelligent. She still believed she didn’t have a lot to offer.

She still believed that she didn’t know how to make a difference. She still believed she didn’t have any power. And today she stands at this podium.

But you know what, this is what I want to tell you: I found the power. I am no different than any of you. I have the same power you have. It is the power that keeps us up late at night and gets us up early in the morning.

I am you. I sit in the classroom and wonder: Am I good enough? I sit in the classroom and say, “Is this the right thing?” I go to meetings and say, “I have ideas. I have beliefs, please listen to me.”

We are one. We have the same power. It is the power to make a difference. It is the power to reach and to risk. It is the power to care for the souls of children.

I’m asking you to use your power. I’m asking you to quit knocking on the doors lightly. Knock them down. I’m asking you to stand up and shout.

We must stop being polite and changing things politely. The time is now.

Malcolm X once said if you have not found something to die for, you are not fit to live. I found it. It is children. It is public education. It is the right of children to go to school.

I’m asking you from this day forward to never, ever give your power away, and never, ever not stand tall with it. I’m asking you — you must unite for children, each and every day, for each and every child. That is our message.

I’m reminded of an old woman. It was very early in the morning, and she was walking on the beach. I knew she was an NEA union member, because she was up so early in the morning.

She was walking on the beach and up in front of her, she saw something and she wondered what it was. So, she decided to walk closer. She was curious, maybe even a little nosy — not that union members are nosy.

She walked closer and you know who she saw? She saw a child moving on the beach and she wondered what she was doing. She got even closer to the child and saw that the young girl was picking something up from the beach and throwing it out into the sea.

And she said, “What in the world is she doing?” So she walked up right next to the child, and she aw that the young girl was picking starfish up from the beach and throwing them out into the sea.

So she asked one of the higher level critical-thinking questions, we’re taught to ask: “What are you doing?”

The young girl, being ever so polite to the teacher, said “Old lady, I’m throwing the starfish into the sea. You see, the morning sun is going to come up. It’s going to bake them on the beach and they will surely die.”

The old woman looked up and down the beach, and she turned back around and said, “There are miles of beaches and millions of starfish. How are you going to make a difference?”

The young girl took the starfish that was in her hand, and with all of her might, threw it into the sea. And she turned back around and she said, “Made a difference to that one, didn’t it?”

I’m asking you for my children who have died. I’m asking you for my children who are living. I’m asking you for children all across this country, to gently throw starfish back into the sea, each and every day. Each and every child.

I’m asking you to stand up for kids. And stand up for public education, because we have the power and we will make the difference.


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