The following is the essay I wrote for the Teacher of the Year selection process. Again, I thank all of my fellow teachers who voted for me.
To Emulate the Gardener
Henry Adams, President Lincoln’s ambassador to London, once said “a teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops”. Think of all of the great teachers whose careful tending and pruning has shaped us into the people we have become, and soon we will begin to see that the teaching profession is that which cultivates the honored garden of knowledge from which springs heads of state, physicians, celebrities and war heroes. It is a profession which is not merely a job, as it is a way of life or something that is in the DNA, a life path that humbles me as I walk between the rows of growing students in my classroom.
I tend my garden in Little Axe High School, my alma mater, where I returned in 1998 after earning a BA in English from Oklahoma Baptist University, a place of excellent gardeners. I have served for over 15 years in my old high school, and I can say that walking the halls of this nostalgic building and working with these fantastic teachers (some of whom were my high school instructors) is and has been a humbling and educational experience on its own. I manage the high school alternative education program, working diligently to see that the students who suffer from what I call “day school aversion” receive the care that they need to see themselves as successful to spite their unfortunate backgrounds, familial circumstances or past disciplinary records. In this I have had many successes, with many of these students attending college, and one of them appearing in “The Mindy Project” and other television shows while pursuing an acting career in Hollywood. I have also taught Advanced Placement English courses for over 12 years, seeing these exceptional students grow and return years later to regale me of their many successes, astonishing me with their fantastic modes of employment. I am also a writer of sorts, publishing three novels with a fourth novel to be released in March of this year, a short story published in an online literary magazine entitled “Literary Juice”, a blog with a few thousand followers and hundreds of daily hits, and I record a podcast about writing with fellow writer Ryan McKinley entitled “Fanboys On Fiction” garnering a regular audience of hundreds. If anything, my writing career has been an inspiration to my student writers. All of these successes are possible because I have a wonderful wife who supports my every effort to be a novelist/teacher and four amazing children who teach me every day about the art of tilling the soil of education.
Part of this art is found in charity. I have always supported the efforts of my students to succeed, encouraging them in every endeavor, guiding them to make long term decisions with wisdom and grace, and helping them to find their own unique way to serve others in this world, cheering them on at games, and crying with them when they feel as if their lives have fallen apart. I volunteer with JediOKC, a Star Wars collectors club, dressing up in screen accurate costumes to entertain the children at Spencer Children’s Hospital, children who have been abused in every way possible. We raise money for these children to have Christmas gifts, candy at Halloween, books to read, clothing to wear and anything else they need to help them rise above their tragedy. We also donate to MDA each year, participating in the yearly MDA walk, the Autism Peace Walk, and any other charity that needs our help to bring joy and wonder to the hearts of children. I work with businesses in my home community to help my alternative education students succeed outside of the classroom, helping them find employment. I am an active member of Grace Place Baptist Church, serving where I can in the background, finding whatever needs to be done, knowing that what I do in secret will be rewarded later in the afterlife. I have been to China for five weeks to teach English and share the love of God with the poor and have been to Ziuateneho, Mexico to aide a small church in their desire to reach their shanty-town community.
As a gardener of young minds, I have come to embrace the philosophy that if we care only for the here and now of our students and do not think about the long term effects of our instruction, we are wasting valuable time in the classroom. As an Advanced Placement teacher, I have used the techniques gleaned from years of conferences and seminars that grew me as a teacher to fertilize the classroom soil where my students grow. This philosophy of teaching is one that is more of a teacher being a guide to learning than a facilitator of knowledge. My students teach me on a daily basis about the texts we read, and their ability to reason is challenged through great writers who have come before us, writers who have shaped and grown the society in which we live. When the common core method was being tossed around in education circles and in academic magazines, I realized that I had been using this method in all of my classes for many years. Common Core is merely a name given to a method of teaching as old as Aristotle, who would challenge his students to think for themselves, find evidence for informed opinions about ideas, and support those ideas with logic. This forms the basis for what I do every day in every classroom setting. All students can indeed learn, but it takes a careful tilling of the soil of their own ability, helping it grow to produce the fruits of knowledge and success. We must see education as the bedrock upon which the garden of progress is grown. However, there is a threat to our crop which affects their ability to grow on a cultural level.
According to many articles written in education circles today the greatest threat to public education in America is not the lack of funding, not the apathy of a “me generation”, but the amount of time students spend out of the classroom participating in extracurricular activities. The public school is the only educational field in which this occurs. In college, all extracurricular activities are after the school day in the evening or on weekends. More and more, students are being taken from the public school classroom for sports tournaments, for assemblies, for other distractions which cause deeper stress on them than most would admit. My students are under much stress to succeed with high stakes testing a requirement for graduation, and in turn teachers are also under even greater stress due to those tests being part of their yearly evaluation, and ultimately their job security. I believe there should be accountability in schools, but scheduling tournaments during school hours cripples the effectiveness of student performance and in turn ties the hands of teachers trying to reach educational goals for the year. The solution to this may be more of a cultural change than our society is willing to sacrifice, but the benefits of insuring that our students have all of the time necessary for instruction is paramount to increasing national test scores and competing in the globalized economy. I am not in any way calling for the abolishment of these activities, for their positive effects are much needed in the lives of our students, but a restructuring of when these activities occur should be a focus of future education policies. If we do not, then our desire for a flourishing garden of education is only a watering of the weeds while our precious fruit withers on the vine.
In this life of cultivating learning, I do my part to strengthen and improve my profession by giving everything to my students, my faculty, and my administration. I know that my classroom will be interrupted, but I must find a way to meet the challenge with kindness and hard work, to guide my students with love, to help them to succeed even if their assignment is late because they arrived from the away-game at midnight last night and cannot shuffle off the desire to sleep. My colleagues are the workforce which aides me in this challenge as well. It indeed takes a village to prune, cultivate, water and encourage our students to grow tall in the sun, to allow their branches to stretch out and bear the fruit of successful lives. If we harness them to a trellis, to something mechanical that does not allow them to find their own way to the truth of their world, then they will often become bitter and unsavory, giving themselves over to dry rot and spotty leaves. This governmental focus on rigorous oversight is in some ways damaging these gardens, perceived by the teacher as a vicious threat or a negative tongue lashing. When teachers are evaluated, it should not be based so much on a test that is taken on one day of the year, under high stress, created by a corporate machine, but through classroom observation and through benchmark testing given throughout the year. There is too much distrust in government of the teaching profession, but there are many teachers in classrooms across this nation who have magnificent gardens, found to be of highest quality if only the foreman would take the time to stop by, visit with them, and sample the fruit.
If I were to be selected to represent Little Axe Public Schools as Teacher of the Year, I would make it my mission (as it always has been) to set an example for how a garden should be constructed, from its rich and fertile soil to its harvesting on that day of pomp and circumstance. If I were given a voice at the state level, I would speak to my fellow teachers in this state about the necessity of making the most of time in their own classrooms. I would provide to them the knowledge I have gleaned from others and from stressful moments of clarity in order to best utilize the time we have and to enhance the lives of our students and faculty. I am humbled and indeed taken aback that my faculty would nominate me for this honor. I will do everything in my power to see that their votes were not wasted. Let us not waste time with trivialities and concerns that do not create the best environment for our children to succeed and to produce in them the seeds that will grow future generations of success stories.