A recount of my experience as the National Teacher of the year
By Anthony Mullen
It’s springtime in Washington D.C. and yesterday, President Barack Obama announced Rebecca Mieliwocki as the 2012 National Teacher of the Year. Mieliwocki will be treated to a meeting with the president in the Oval Office followed by a ceremony honoring our nation’s teachers in the Rose Garden. The newly crowned teacher will stand behind the president’s podium in the Rose Garden and speak before an audience of dignitaries, education leaders, corporate benefactors, and family and friends. I stood behind that podium in 2009 and can still recall vividly the surreal feeling of being out of place standing next to the president of the United States. I suddenly understood how a young Arthur must have felt when he pulled Excalibur from a stone and realized the role serendipity plays in our lives.
I was nervous while awaiting my turn to speak in the Rose Garden. President Obama is a polished speaker and I was scheduled to speak after he addressed the audience. I listened halfheartedly as the president spoke, not because his speech lacked inspiration, but because I was worried about the wind. All I could think about was how the blustery weather would lift my prepared speech from the top of the wood and acrylic podium and send it tumbling throughout the Rose Garden. I then would be forced to talk ad lib and have nothing to say. I was told emphatically that I had only three minutes to address the assembled guests and media, and I had edited and revised my speech to accommodate this fixed time frame. Speaking extemporaneously would only lace my speech with a plethoric cadence of uh and um. I imagined myself on YouTube, pathetically scrambling about the Rose Garden trying to retrieve my two-page speech as sharply dressed woman giggled and men in suits laughed.
And then the president turned to his right and introduced me. It was my turn to speak.
I firmly held my speech and spoke about my at-risk students and the important role teachers play in the lives of all children. I talked about the one thread that unites all good teachers-the ability to read a child’s story. I reminded the audience that all children carry with them a unique and unfinished story, and the very best teachers know how to read those stories and help edit the mistakes. The really good teachers know how to script confidence onto the blank pages and, more importantly, how to compose a happy ending. I spoke about the noble profession of teaching and the beauty of teachers.
I was lucky. The winds abated while I spoke and I did not have to suffer the embarrassment of chasing an errant speech. But I had forgotten one very important aspect of my speech: I forgot to thank my family for all their love and support. Fortunately for me, the president of the United States did not forget the importance of thanking the unsung people who made possible my trip to the White House. As I motioned to walk away from the podium, President Obama walked next to me and whispered in my ear: “Tony, you have time to thank your family.” I was so transfixed on finishing my prepared three minute speech that I had neglected to say thanks to my wife, children, and mother-and father-in-law. I felt grateful for the president’s friendly reminder and ashamed of my behavior. I spent the next few minutes introducing and thanking my family, and watched proudly as each member of my family stood and was applauded by a gracious audience. So began my pilgrimage as the National Teacher of the Year. I would spend the next twelve months traveling throughout the United States and visiting some foreign countries, advocating for at-risk students and promoting the teaching profession.
I am often asked to relate the most memorable time I had while performing my duties as the National Teacher of the Year. Was it meeting the president? Or visiting Japan? Or could it be speaking at a particular convention or university? No. Meeting some very influential people was a gift that I will always cherish, but the truly memorable encounters are those that form relationships that bring substance to our lives and enrich the lives of others. My most enriching experience was meeting Nancy Knowlton and David Martin, the founders of SMART Technologies. These kindhearted people did more than just listen to the stories of my students, they wanted to help them. I spoke at hundreds of events and every audience was cordial and appreciative, but only SMART Technologies wanted to do something that would tangibly improve the lives of my at-risk students. Nancy and David introduced me to one of their most professional and energetic employees, Kimberleigh Doyle, and soon a wonderful relationship between my students and SMART blossomed.
Kimberleigh visited my cramped alternative high school and easily mingled with my troubled students. She surveyed each classroom and noticed a lack of SMART Boards. Within weeks new SMART Board interactive whiteboards were installed in each of my school’s four classrooms. My students felt important and the learning environment of my school was forever changed for the better.
I wish Rebecca Mieliwocki, the new National Teacher of the Year, success and happiness as she takes on the role of ambassador for America’s teachers. And I hope she will be fortunate to meet people such as Nancy Knowlton, David Martin, and Kimberleigh Doyle. They are some of the many SMART people who truly care about the success and welfare of our students.