Vermilion Parish High School Teacher of the Year, 2019-2020
Louisiana State Teacher of the Year Finalist, 2021
Abbeville High School English Department
An Open Letter to Teachers: In Times of Crisis, Don’t Forget Your Power
I am an accidental teacher. I do not descend from a dynasty of educators like many of my peers. I never consciously thought about entering education as a profession. I was always going to be a lawyer and work in some form of public service. I wanted to work my way up and cultivate the connections, experience, and power to make systemic change happen. I wanted to help achieve real change for the impoverished, the marginalized, the condemned, the weak. My law school orientation experience revealed to me; however, that law was not the path intended for me. Now what? I thought to myself. About a week or so later, a friend of a friend reached out and asked if I would be interested in substituting at a local high school. The Navy had activated her husband, so she and her family relocated to a Georgia military base. “Sure,” I said. “It’s an English class. I have an English degree. At least it’s a job for now,” I thought. To make a too-long story short, that’s how I fell in love with education and began to recognize my power as a teacher: a substitute position I planned to leave over six or seven years ago. Fast forward to today, and I’m working toward a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction with my sights set on an Ed.D. Funny how our passions find us, isn’t it?
My tenure in education as a teacher (short-ish) and a student (much longer) has taught me a few very simple but substantial things. First, whether consciously or not, school communities look at our actions as a reference for their own reactions. This is especially true in times of crises like a pandemic and a major hurricane. Like every teacher in 2020, my colleagues and I experienced setbacks, letdowns, glimmers of hope, and even some successes. During the COVID-19 quarantine (which I talk about in this video), I became acutely aware of how our school community looks to the staff to know how to react to the new normal. I noticed that if we were positive and proactive, our students and their families generally reacted similarly. In preparation for Hurricane Laura, I saw the same phenomenon. As our faculty united in positivity during this crisis, our school community naturally gravitated toward our behavior. As devastating as hurricane season can be on the Gulf Coast, nothing quite like it brings us together. It’s a remarkable thing to witness. From what I see, our voices are loud, but our actions are deafening. That’s a powerful thing to consider!
The second thing being a teacher has taught me is that teachers have the power to make students believe just about anything about themselves if said with enough conviction. Teachers can make a C+ feel like a Congressional Medal of Freedom. Students’ presentations look like post-game press conferences, and class discussions resemble the respectful conversations that sometimes seem to be missing from our society. Teachers can make students feel like they can do anything, no matter the scale: draft the essay, solve the problem, right the wrong, apologize, forgive, know their worth, think big, dream bigger, plan a future, start over, and work for change.
The third and, to me, the most striking thing I’ve learned is that teachers work on the hardest edges of love. Compassion and love must supersede high standards and expectations, which isn’t always easy when working with our most challenging students. Structuring schools around socio-emotional equity and making every child feel not only safe but wanted, is paramount if academic growth is the goal. The large-scale events we are witnessing in 2020 demonstrate the power teachers have to influence the future directly. Many of our students are challenged by poverty, social injustice, inequity, food insecurity, negative influence from peers, themselves, disabilities, exceptionalities, low school attendance, and unstable home lives. As stewards of our country’s future, our job is to equip our kids with the skills to change these circumstances, not just for themselves, but for everyone. By that logic, teachers affect the future. Setting high standards and expectations while exercising compassion and patience is how teachers deliver the inspiration and strength students require to believe they can move the earth.
I previously mentioned that the goal of my life was a career in public service. I wanted to work toward the justice Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed the moral arc of the universe bent toward. At the time, I didn’t understand that the classroom is where I was meant to work toward the fundamental social changes I so desperately wanted. I see now that classrooms are where we have tremendous power to invest in our future. Classrooms are where we build confidant kids who go on to illuminate the world. Classrooms are where we work toward the equity our students deserve. I wanted to help achieve real change for the impoverished, the marginalized, the condemned, and the weak. I’m in a position to do that now, which is a humbling feeling heavy with welcome responsibility.
Teachers are highly trained professionals who also happen to have superpowers. In these challenging times, I want to remind my colleagues of the power we hold. What we say and do has meaning and influence. No matter the grade level you teach or the content in which you specialize, no matter your years of experience or path to education, no matter your teaching style, the size of your school, or which part of our beautiful state you call home – we all play a role in nurturing a facet of our communities, our state, our nation, and our global village. You. Are. Powerful. Don’t ever doubt it.