Taking Initiative Can Take You Far

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May 14, 2019

Fifty-seven Teachers of the Year from every state and U.S. territory, veteran Teachers of the Year, legislators and other education stakeholders joined together for a week in May to tell our stories, grow personally and professionally, and to help elevate student voices and the voices of our incredible teaching colleagues at home. We examined our path to teacher leadership and worked through ways that we can grow teacher leaders in our home states. 

Take Initiative

Do you know the turning point on my path to teacher leadership? It was when I realized that I should never wait for my district to offer a training. I should never wait for my school to “develop” me. I should never wait but instead take initiative. 

We are talented professionals and can take ownership of our learning. I have learned to take full advantage of what my school and district offers, but to be a continuous learner is even more important. 

Own your learning! If there’s a workshop that I want to attend, I ask. If denied due to lack of available funds, I write a grant! If there’s a speaker whom I want to hear, I ask. If denied, I ask someone else! If there’s a committee to join, lead or begin, an issue about which I feel strongly, I get involved! 

If you hear that little voice inside, then listen. I have learned to embrace discomfort as an opportunity for professional growth and step outside of my comfort zone, and I want that for my educator colleagues, as well.

Take Risks, and Never Give Up

The process to become the 2019 Michigan Teacher of the Year was not all smooth sailing. My principal nominated me for the position, along with 76 other teachers who were nominated across the state.  After the state whittled down this group of teachers to 25, I was asked to submit a video, respond in writing to several essay questions and submit a number of letters of recommendation. 

I submitted my paperwork to the state and waited patiently for a response. A few weeks passed, which turned into a few months. I finally checked the timeline on Michigan Department of Education’s website and realized that I should have heard about the next round by that time. 

I waited a bit longer, assuming that there was a delay, and then I finally emailed my contact at the Department. My paperwork never made it to their office. My submission had never been received. It was past the deadline. 

This was January of 2018. My contact at the department encouraged me to reapply the next fall. My family encouraged me to do the same. My building principal insisted that she would submit a nomination again. I didn’t know if I could go through that process again. I hadn’t realized how much it meant to me until it was no longer in my reach.

In the fall of 2018, after quite a bit of hesitation, I began the process again. This time, 449 other teachers were nominated for Michigan Teacher of the Year. I had the honor of being selected to move on to the second round, which included a new video, a new set of essay questions and updated letters of recommendations. 

I received a call in April of 2019 that I was named a Regional Teacher of the Year for Michigan and was invited to Lansing for an in-person interview. A few weeks later, there was a surprise assembly at my school. Sheila Alles, the Interim State Superintendent of Michigan, announced my name as the 2019 Michigan Teacher of the Year! I was shocked. I was speechless. I couldn’t understand how, surrounded by a building of extraordinary educators, in a district of top-notch professionals, in a state of 90,000  teachers, they would choose me.

It was painful to make it that far in the process the first time, after an awful lot of work and time, to find out that my submission was never received. Had I not taken that risk to start the process again, the trajectory of my life wouldn’t have been changed on that day.

I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to advocate for teachers and students on state-level education committees. I wouldn’t have had the chance to deliver countless keynotes across the state, facilitate countless professional development sessions and work with hundreds of rising teacher leaders. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to talk education with President Trump, Vice President Pence, Second Lady Pence and our nation’s Secretary of Education. I wouldn’t have worked with Emirati teachers in the United Arab Emirates with other teacher leaders from around the world, and so much more.

I’ve learned that life is not about comfort. It’s about purpose. Taking risks when working toward your purpose is something that we must embrace as teacher leaders.

Know Your Worth

Mr. Fred Rogers said it best:

“Just who you are at this moment, with the way that you are feeling, is fine.  You don’t have to be anything more than who you are right now.”

There are many times that I wish I had read this quote, early in my career. I would like to think it was also something that happened to me through the years, though – that I am more able to accept myself as I happen to be, rather than as somebody thought I should be.

It takes a special person to be a teacher, but it takes an extraordinary person to handle the pressures of our profession. You do it! You do it every day! We should all be proud of who we are, how far we have come and our ability to push ourselves to be better.

Keep being you, teacher friend. You are amazing! Know your worth!

Embrace Your Passion Work

Every effective teacher has passion work. For some, it is equity in rural areas. For others, it is equity in their urban schools.

We are all fighting for equity for all students regardless of their ZIP code, for better teacher retention, for recruiting a more diverse workforce, for training teachers in culturally competent pedagogy, for better pay, for building relationships, for less focus on standardized testing, for strong mentoring and coaching programs and more.

Missionary Jill Briscoe said, “From now on, the orbit of your life, the space between your own two feet ... that is your mission field.” Teachers across the country are committing themselves to the educational orbit of their lives, and that gives me great hope.

Laura Chang is Michigan’s Teacher of the Year for 2018-19, and Meemic is proud to partner with the Michigan Department of Education for the program. Laura is entering her nineteenth year of teaching at Sunset Lake Elementary in Vicksburg Community Schools, where she is currently a K-5 interventionist.
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