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Lead and Learn:
Lessons from the
Teacher of the Year

Teachers have a responsibility to be educational leaders and life-long learners in order to serve as role models for the their students, according to National Teacher of the Year Dr. Betsy Rogers. Rogers made her remarks in a speech to Simsbury (Connecticut) Public School faculty as they began the 2003-2004 school year. Included: Remarks by National Teacher of the Year Dr. Betsy Rogers.

"We have to view ourselves as professionals with a practice," National Teacher of the Year Dr. Betsy Rogers told Simsbury (Connecticut) public school district faculty and staff at their 20th beginning-of-the-year convocation. "[We have] to be a voice for education for all kids."

Honoring the Teacher of the Year

Inviting the National Teacher of the Year to kick-off the school term has become a tradition for the Simsbury (Connecticut) Public Schools. Dr. Betsy Rogers is the 12th national teacher to welcome the faculty to a new school year. "I think they have an important message," Superintendent Dr. Joseph Townsley told Education World.

When Townsley first called to invite the national teacher to speak to the Simsbury faculty, he learned that national teachers often do not receive the welcome he thinks they deserve. "A lot of times there is no one to welcome them, no reception," Townsley said. His staff, therefore, makes sure the national teacher is greeted, taken out to dinner, provided with a car, a room in a nice hotel -- and a very warm welcome.

"The National Teacher represents all teachers in the United States," Townsley said. "I feel they should be treated very professionally."

Rogers, on leave from her position as a first and second grade looping teacher at Leeds Elementary School, in Jefferson County, Alabama, said she earned masters and doctoral degrees -- and national certification -- not to move into administration, but to be a better classroom teacher.

"I had to look at everything I did in terms of how it enhanced learning," Rogers said of the national certification process. "I became a data-driven teacher. I realized that the kids who read more at home were better readers. I started to track the number of books kids read at home. I also could explain the pros and cons of looping because I had done my master's thesis on looping. When I could do that, I felt like a professional educator."

Rogers added that she is not "consumed" with testing, saying "I'm just using research more to improve learning."

The primary obstacle to a quality education for all children is the vast differences in funding levels for education among communities, she said. Her own school serves many students from low-income homes. Poorer schools struggle with fewer resources and less experienced faculty members than wealthier districts, making it harder for students to keep up, let alone excel.

"This is how I will use my voice [to campaign for greater financial equity,]" Rogers said. "I wish it were the calling of people with higher degrees to teach in high-poverty schools."

All children begin with an eagerness to learn, Rogers said. "One thing that is the same in poor and affluent kindergarten classes is the hope in a 5-year-old's eyes."

Although we know that teachers can have a powerful impact on students, the children's lives can be sources of inspiration as well. Five years ago, just as Rogers was starting her masters degree program, her husband died suddenly of a massive heart attack, leaving her to raise her two sons alone. She admitted that for a time she wanted to put her studies on hold, but she finally decided to continue.

During that difficult period, Rogers drew inspiration from one of the students in her class-- a 6-year-old boy with disabilities whose mother had died. The two talked about their mutual grief, but the boy, who was about the size of a 2-year-old, never complained about his disabilities, Rogers said. One day, he faced off in a math game against the biggest boy in the class. The smaller child looked over and said, "Bring it on, big boy."

"Sometimes, life isn't fair," Rogers noted, "but you just have to say, 'bring it on.'"

Rogers, who is Alabama's first National Teacher of the Year, also joked that she is a novelty in a state where football and beauty pageants are revered. When she told a friend she had been named Teacher of the Year, the friend responded that surely she should receive a crown. And she made sure that Rogers did.

Simsbury staff members said Rogers' talk provided a powerful start to the school year. "She was very inspirational, very heartfelt," said Brenda Goff, a district reading consultant. "You can tell she truly cares about her students. She makes you want to go out there and do what you can do, should do, and need to do."