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Teacher of the Year Kathleen Turner: "Be proud of our profession and of the influence you have."

The following is the text of the speech delivered by 2013 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year Kathleen Turner at the MTA Annual Meeting of Delegates. Click here to watch the speech on the MTA's YouTube channel.

Good morning!  I am thrilled to have this opportunity to speak to you today. It is so exciting to look out and see so many people who are here for the same reason: We are all passionate educators!  I’d like to tell you a little bit about my story and some of my thoughts about teaching.


Kathleen Turner
Teacher of the Year

I have always been a teacher. From the time when I read stories to my stuffed animals and took extra worksheets home from first grade and taught my friends math during summer vacation, to tutoring classmates before biology tests in high school and helping my grandmother learn Roman numerals for her crossword puzzles, I loved sharing knowledge with others and finding creative ways to help them learn. I did not have to decide what my career would be; I simply knew that I would formalize what I had always done naturally. 
The origin of my love for all that is French remains a mystery. Since my mother’s family did not identify with its French Canadian roots and I didn’t even know anyone who had traveled to a Francophone region when I was little, I can’t explain the effect of the first day of French class when I was in the eighth grade. I was immediately mesmerized by Monsieur Cormier as he bounded enthusiastically around the classroom, spouting strings of beautiful words that were completely foreign yet somehow magical to me. I didn’t understand what he was saying, but I grasped meaning through his gestures, his drawings, and his repetition. I felt a spark ignite, and I went home and told my parents that I would be a high school French teacher when I ‘grew up.’ As atypical as it may seem, my professional focus was clear from that point on. I went to Harvard, majored in French, completed the Undergraduate Teacher Education Program, and became “Mademoiselle Turner” at Sharon High School 19 years ago.
I can’t count the number of times people have raised their eyebrows and said something along the lines of, ‘What? Why did you become a teacher?’ or ‘Wow! You are fluent in French, you love to travel...why aren’t you a translator or doing something for the UN?’ or ‘A teacher? But ... you could have done anything!’
I always feel saddened by the comments. Although not stated as such, the message is that teaching is somehow sub-par and a lesser profession. The question is, WHY?
Teachers are the ones who prepare students in tangible and intangible ways to function in the world. We help students to develop or strengthen lifelong skills, introduce them to countless content areas, and perhaps inspire a new hobby or even a career path. Sometimes it may feel like we are not making a difference, but we all contribute in some way to honing students’ ability to think, analyze, communicate and be active citizens. And our kind words, tough love, encouragement and guidance have more of an impact than we ever will know.

Education is the foundation on which society is built – and without teachers, no other professions would exist!
So sure, I could have done anything. But what I chose to do – and what you all have chosen to do – is the most important ... and it is actually everything.  What people outside of education don’t quite understand is that “teacher” is the label for those people who have so many talents that they can’t decide on ONLY ONE profession and so become all of them. 

And it takes less time to say “I am a teacher” than  “I am an...
administrative assistant
computer programmer
copy repair person
desktop publisher
driving instructor
financial analyst
flight attendant
floral arranger
hair dresser
pest controller
police officer
postal worker
security guard
social worker
tour guide
travel agent

It takes less

Download "It Takes Less Time"

That would just take too long.  And yes, I do have a story for each of those hats that I have worn during the past 19 years (but unfortunately, not the cumulative salary!).

I was honored when my department coordinator told me last year that she wanted to nominate me for Massachusetts Teacher of the Year. What I did not know was that there was an extensive three-step application process during which I had to write essays about myself, my teaching philosophy and my opinions regarding issues facing public education today; videotape one of my classes; and be interviewed by a panel of 10 educators.

The coordinator from DESE said that the finalists would spend five minutes at the beginning of the interview introducing ourselves and then respond to questions for about 40 minutes.  She also said that we should bring our own technology if we needed it for the five-minute introduction. There was no way that I was going to bring a computer or a projector for a five-minute presentation, so I went Old School and did “show and tell” about myself in the format of a lesson. I posted a paper agenda on the wall, complete with an essential question, learning objectives, an activator, “class activities.” and a summarizer.  I brought in objects and talked about my family, my love of French (and my obsession with "The Little Prince"), my teaching (I’ll go back to that!), my commitment to the Sharon High School community, and the thrill of summer vacation.  This is the “sculpture” I made to explain my teaching.

As you can see, the base shows that I teach the French language and introduce students not only to France but to the many Francophone cultures throughout the world; I also encourage students to think critically, be global citizens, and be respectful of others; and since language teaching can be difficult in the confines of the classroom, I travel with students to France and Quebec on a regular basis. In addition to teaching, I provide a shoulder to cry on (that’s Kleenex), I try to solve problems (a Band-Aid), I encourage students (a megaphone), and I celebrate successes large and small (a gold medal).  The spoons show that teaching is a recipe with indefinite quantities of many elements: energy, compassion, intelligence, patience, sense of humor – the amounts needed of any of these change from day to day – sometimes from minute to minute.  I also try to achieve a balance – not too flexible, not too rigid; not too student-centered, not too teacher-centered; not moving too quickly or too slowly; having standards that are not too low, not too high; and not differentiating too much or too little.  As a language teacher, I try to achieve the balance of the four skill areas of reading, writing, listening, speaking—and finally, I think on my feet and am always trying to come up with new ideas.

I found out the night after the interview that I had been chosen to represent the teachers of Massachusetts for the upcoming year – and that began an unbelievable whirlwind of events: a ceremony at my high school, interviews for newspapers, radio and TV, a luncheon at the State House, and recognition at a Celtics game and a Red Sox game. During this year, I gave speeches to various groups, presented workshops and attended conferences. I have had the opportunity to meet other Teachers of the Year in Arizona and in Washington, D.C. There was a ceremony for all of us in the Rose Garden at the White House with President Obama.  I was able to meet him briefly in the Oval Office – although I was so flustered I can barely remember it.  Thank goodness I have a picture.  Like Miss America, my “term” culminates in July with a week at Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama.  It’s been a wild ride.

Although this recognition is an exciting validation of my accomplishments and my passion, I believe this award is a celebration of public education and of all teachers. 

I also believe that effective teaching does not happen in isolation.  The success of any one teacher is linked to the dedication of new and veteran colleagues at all grade levels and across all disciplines.  I have been privileged to work with a team in Sharon whose commitment to teaching and learning is second to none and who have helped to shape me as an educator.  When our high school was named a Blue Ribbon School last year, I would have preferred that we be designated a Blue Ribbon District – we would not be successful at the high school if teachers, counselors, support staff and administrators at the early-childhood, elementary and middle schools were not laying the foundation for our work.  This is why I am opposed to merit pay; how can one teacher be rewarded over another for students’ high test scores or achievements when the reality is that their success is the result of the cumulative efforts of everyone who has worked with them?

During an interview last spring, a reporter asked me a double-barreled question:  Is your experience in public education as wonderful as you imagined it would be or have there been unexpected challenges?  For me, this was not “either/or.”  My answer was – without hesitation – ‘yes’ AND ‘yes’.  YES, I love what I do! Sure, there have been frustrating days, but I have never once gotten in the car to go to school in the morning thinking, ‘I can’t do this anymore, I wish I were doing something else.’  My students motivate me and inspire me, and I often think that I learn as much from them as they learn from me.

But YES, there have also been unexpected challenges. When I envisioned my career, I knew that I would have students with diverse cognitive abilities. What I didn’t expect, however, was the extent to which emotional, medical, and socioeconomic circumstances would impact students’ ability to concentrate, perform, and achieve on a daily basis.

There are students who are experiencing what we think of as typical teenage issues: fights with parents, peer pressure, breakups, failing a driving test, and getting rejected from first- choice colleges.  Then there are students who come to school exhausted because they have to cook dinner for younger siblings every night while their parents work; students who are sleeping on the back seat of someone’s car because they have been kicked out of their house; students who are trying to come to terms with divorce, illness and death in their families; students who don’t speak English or who are trying to adjust to American culture; students who have over-involved or under-involved parents; students who have already been to rehab to treat drug and alcohol addictions; students who suffer from debilitating anxiety or depression ... and the list goes on.  I have had all of these students, and so have you.

I had no idea that there would be days when my “objective” for some students would have nothing to do with French, but everything to do with being sensitive to factors in their lives that are completely beyond my control – and making sure that they don’t have a breakdown, an outburst, or a panic attack. Or simply that they can get through class.
Although the specific situations may vary depending on grade level or shift in proportion from district to district, they exist everywhere for all teachers. 

As we struggle to maintain high expectations for students whose very last concern may be the daily agenda on our board, we hear much talk in political arenas and business circles about the problems in public education.  Unfortunately, there is little consultation with the educators who grapple with these issues.  We are the professionals who could provide the most valuable insight regarding the roots of the challenges we face, as well as offer potential strategies for addressing them.  Despite having the best of intentions to improve teaching and learning, many of those who have the power to effect change are quite removed from teachers’ daily realities.  They draft policies and mandates that seem sound in theory but may indeed be ineffective or even unfeasible in practice.
That is what I said at the State House in front of the Governor on June 18 – and then proposed the following challenge to lawmakers and business leaders: I asked them to show their commitment to public education – and ultimately to the nation’s children – by agreeing to shadow two teachers in their home constituencies each year, one in what is considered to be a “high-achieving district” and a second week in what has been labeled an “underperforming district” in order to witness the disparities that exist within states and across the country. 

I invited them into our schools to gain firsthand knowledge of the many facets of our jobs, to spend full days with their hosts, not only to observe their classes but also to accompany them to parent conferences, faculty meetings, special education evaluations, technology training sessions, and required duties.  I suggested that they stay with them after school and into the evenings while they correct assessments, plan upcoming lessons, write progress reports, respond to emails and complete administrative paperwork.
Just as “immersion” is the most effective way for students to learn a language and understand a different culture, I believe that it is also the best way to fully understand public education.  By immersing themselves in our world, these lawmakers and business leaders would have a new perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of our systems. They would be able to assess, for example, whether reform movements such “Race to the Top” foster improved teaching and learning and to what extent standardized testing can measure a student’s (or a teacher’s) success.  Moreover, they would see our struggle to meet the diverse needs of our students while adhering to legislation requiring increasing levels of standardization.

It is my hope that they would share what they have learned with their fellow leaders, that they would compare notes and evaluate what kinds of reform might be appropriate for all schools and what aspects of reform might be tailored to better meet the unique needs of certain schools or certain districts.  Just as we are encouraged to differentiate instruction and assessment for individual students, I would like them to consider the possibility that educational legislation may not always be “one size fits all.” Ideally, this experience shadowing teachers would give them a heightened awareness of the complexities of education and it would lay the groundwork for meaningful collaboration with us to define courses of action for the future.

At this point, no one has responded, but I would like to ask you to propose this challenge within your district and invite community members into your schools and classrooms to see what you and your colleagues do every day.
Thank you for the difference that you make.  Be proud of our profession and of the influence you have. Make sure that your voice – our voice – is heard.  Above all, do not lose sight of the reason you love to teach: your students.
Thank you.

Kathleen Turner is a French teacher at Sharon High School. 

Click here for more coverage of the 2013 MTA Annual Meeting.