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Is this where I pinch myself?

Sarah Brown Wessling reflects on receiving the National Teacher of the Year award in the White House Rose Garden.
Sarah Brown Wessling Speech at National Teacher of the Year

Sarah Brown Wessling, a high school English teacher at Johnston High School in Johnston, Iowa, accepts the 2010 National Teacher of the Year Award from President Barack Obama during a ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House, April 29, 2010. April 29, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Earlier today, I was honored join President Obama, Secretary Duncan, and Dr. Biden in the Rose Garden of the White House to accept the National Teach of the Year award.

I couldn’t be more overwhelmed and humbled by this honor.  I was joined by the most remarkable assemblages of teachers  - the 2010 State Teachers of the Year -  I have known.  Each is gifted and passionate about the work he or she does; yet, together we are galvanized in our shared vision of what teaching and learning can be.  My family, my administrators, some of my own teachers and former students, along with many representatives from the State of Iowa were also in attendance.  In front of us all is the collective responsibility to create hope and opportunity for every child in this country.

I think there is a misconception about this honor, that its purpose is to differentiates one teacher from another.  Rather, this honor is about our similarities, about what unites us.  It’s the deliberateness I share with Daniel, the design I share with Kate, the attention to students I share with Melissa, the pursuit of ideas I share with Ed – all of these teachers here and from home.  It is about the purpose I share with each educator standing here today.

If you were to come into my classroom, the first thing you would notice is that my desk is in the back corner, despite the building design to make it otherwise.  This placement is but an outward sign of an implicit philosophy, that teaching must be learner-centered.

“The desk in the back of the room” displaces hierarchies, creates an environment where a teacher becomes a lead learner, and evolves into a web of interdependence where the classroom walls become boundless. When we embrace this open-model of learning, the consumers of our curriculum will become designers of their own learning.

It is in these moments of learning that I fondly think of my students.  I am here because my students couldn’t be.  When we listen to them, their message is clear: Labria would say she deserves worthy learning experiences;
Robert would want to be seen as an individual, not as a number or the score on an exam; Meredith would clamor for innovative curriculum; Jasmina would say she deserves passionate teachers. They all would say we need 21st century teachers, not just adults teaching in the 21st century.

Our dream for our students is the same dream we have for our own children, to be recognized for their strengths, to learn from their weaknesses and to be seen as a person of infinite potential.

We are facing tough times in education when it may be difficult to find what to hold onto, but each learner is a story. I see the world in stories and I believe it is these stories that will sustain and teach us.  They will challenge and sometimes confuse us.  But in the same way that I believe in the transformative power of language to unite us, I am certain that the stories of our students will sustain us.
The 2010 Teachers of the Year are here because our students couldn’t be, because their stories compel us to be here, because we couldn’t be anywhere else.

President Obama Presents National Teacher of the Year Award

President Barack Obama, with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, right, presents Sarah Brown Wessling the 2010 Teacher of the Year Award during a ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House, April 29, 2010. April 29, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton)

Sarah Brown Wessling is a high school English teacher at Johnston High School in Johnston, Iowa, and the recipient of this year’s National Teacher of the Year Award.