Being named your State's Teacher of the Year is a life changing experience. In a heartbeat you are picked up out of your old life and dropped into a new life. This year I have been honored at the White House, met the President, Secretary Hillary Clinton, Secretary Arne Duncan and all of my state's Senators and Congresspeople.

It is especially humbling to be the first Special Education teacher in my state to win this award. Because of that I have been able to be a voice for so many who have never had a voice before.

I have made more than 200 appearances, travelled close to 40,000 miles and have met the biggest movers and shakers in the educational world. I have served on a national panel at NNSTOY and was honored to be asked to speak at the Martin Luther King Memorial on the eve of the 75th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. For an openly gay teacher to stand at the base of that statue and speak of the rights of our our at-risk and gay youth will be a moment I will never forget.

Combining my Teacher of the Year Award with my NEA Foundation Excellence in Education Award and my National Association of Special Education Teachers Award for Outstanding Special Education Teacher I have become one of the most recognized voices in Special Education. To go from a teacher in a tiny program to becoming a voice for so many is truly inspiring.

Because of this I have been asked to speak to many college and university education programs. This is truly one of the best parts of the year. What an honor to speak to and inspire the future educators of America. I always give as much time as possible at my events for Q&A and I love the questions that come my way.

Since my year is wrapping up, I thought a round of Q&A on reddit, ( with future redducators) would be a terrific end to my "year of service." I will speak candidly but remember I am the representative of 40,000 teachers and education in my state and must always remain a gentleman.

Comments: 84 • Responses: 36  • Date: 

Deciama10 karma

Which is your favorite Pokémon?

TeachOfTheYear18 karma

Jigglypuff. The name still cracks me up.

TeachOfTheYear9 karma


honusthegrif9 karma

How do you feel about standardized testing?

TeachOfTheYear16 karma

I will speak to this and how it applies to special education. If a student qualifies for special ed based on IQ, I do not understand why this student would be given standardized testing since they have been put on an IEP (an individual education plan) and the school has an agreement they will not teach this student in a standardized way. Sadly, most kids in special ed are given standardized tests or modified versions that often show them compared to there non-special ed classmates.

To base a special ed teacher's evaluation on those scores is another matter. A Special Ed teacher should be respected for their ability to teach individually to their students, not punished for having non-standardized students.

the_ouskull5 karma

States no longer allow modified tests, even for IEP/SPED students.

suamac6 karma

Several of my students will be taking standardized testing and are given accommodations, none of which will actually help them succeed in any way.

TeachOfTheYear2 karma

Sadly that is the case with many kids who are severely handicapped. I was able to discuss this topic with SecretAry Arne Duncan this summer. Afterwards I am proud to say, he changed national policy and gave states another year before teacher evaluations would have to be tied to testing. At least we are part of the conversation now, though I'm the first to say my evaluation would be terrible if it was tied to my students scores on standardized tests.

NoNotSheldonCooper8 karma

What do you think is the most common mistake teachers/professors make in trying to educate their students?

TeachOfTheYear13 karma

Today's teachers are 1/2 teacher, 1/4 parent and 1/4 social worker. There is no time left to advocate for education and that is where we are failing our students. Teachers are taking a backseat while corporations try to take over public education and privatize it. The word "profit" should not exist in public education. "Profit" in public education would only mean money we didn't spend to educate our students. There is no school that couldn't use more books, or software, gym equipment or to have their music teachers or librarians hired back. There is no profit until all of that is done for all of our kids. Teachers need to be part of the conversation since we will be the ones implementing the plan and this will lead to stronger policies which will, in effect, then allow us to be the best teachers teaching in the most successful way. Stronger teachers make for stronger better education.

ME246018 karma

What advice would you give to a first year teacher?

TeachOfTheYear16 karma

The first three years are the hardest! Ask for or find yourself a mentor teacher in your new school. They know the ins-and-outs of the school and the paperwork and will have quick answers to questions that might take you an hour to figure out on your own. Research does show mentoring to be extremely beneficial.

TeachOfTheYear10 karma

And one more.... On the NEA website is their GPS website (Greater Public Schools). They have TONS of free teacher-made curriculum to support classrooms. I put my own worksheets up there for other teachers to use.

TeachOfTheYear10 karma

Also, check your community for organizations that give supplies to schools. We have an organization that allows teachers to fill up a basket with books and common art and school supplies. A free basket of art supplies will inspire you and your kids and will give you on-hand projects.

Testicularwart7 karma

What's the biggest flaw that the American public school system has?

TeachOfTheYear30 karma

A flaw is the ideal that school is preparing you for college. School is preparing you for life. America has done our youth a grave disservice by moving away from trade schools and training programs in the pursuit of college-bound careers. Those trade educations and futures are just as viable and as important as history degrees and computer majors.

I was thrilled to see Illinois made an auto shop teacher their Teacher of the Year for 2015. We need nation-wide support for such programs. Not every kid will go to college, but that doesn't mean they don't deserve a good education.

RokisNewhen6 karma

Being an educator as well I agree that the departure towards more testing, college prep and leaving trades more so behind is disappointing.

I understand the push for college as now the American generations to come are going to competing in a world where there are a great number more of post secondary educated people. I like to think that the systems is changing to give students a better opportunity to compete globally but maybe not handled in the best way. Not everyone is going to college or even should.

I also think that education is not valued and we live "microwave" society where work towards your goals are expected to have instant gratification which it isn't. This all is conflicting with a lot of perceived culture for the average student.

*not an ELA teacher so pardon the "much gooder" grammar

TeachOfTheYear8 karma

So much emphasis on standardized testing. Instead of books districts are buying test books, instead of music they buy test practice kits and instead of teachers we are training testers. We can do much better than that.

PasswordIsTaco11285 karma

Who is your hero, and why is it two-time, Arlen, Texas substitute teacher of the year, Peggy Hill?

TeachOfTheYear4 karma

I believe two-time, Arlen, Texas Substitute Teacher of the Year, Peggy Hill, were she to have her own full- time classroom, would be the person writing here this evening instead of me. She would have all the kid's names memorized by lunchtime on the first day of school unlike me who will still screw up names in May. Peggy, unlike me, would have her paperwork ready two days early just in case and finally Mrs Hill has a very catchy theme song which I cannot compete with.

My Spanish, however, might be better than hers.

heebit_the_jeeb5 karma

How do you feel about the push to mainstream special education students into classrooms with more traditionally abled students?

TeachOfTheYear4 karma

We all live in the same world and I believe mainstreaming allows everyone in our community to have a shared experience. You know who doesn't judge based on ability/disability? People who are raised around disabilities. If you go to third grade with a kid with autism, you will have a much different outlook about autism than someone who has little exposure to autism.

That said, no general ed teacher should have to take on that added amount of work without full support of the special ed staff. When I discuss this topic I always ask people to do the math. One teacher divided by thirty students equals two minutes per student per hour. If that teacher is also mainstreaming a behavior student who needs ten minutes of teacher time an hour to be successful, then that teacher needs eight minutes of support to make up the difference. I believe every kid should be mainstreamed as much as possible...and that means providing the teachers the supports they need to make all their kids successful.

Glane18185 karma

This is not meant to be rude, but I work with a teacher who was just awarded as national teacher of the year. Personally, I like her a lot, and she's obviously an amazing teacher, but she's obsessed with recognition, awards, receiving complements, etc. It's almost like a drug. Once she won teacher of the year for the community, she applied for every recognition known to man. When I read your comment I couldn't help but think that you might be running down that same path. Do you feel like you are becoming obsessed with a need for recognition and that you are losing your humbleness?

Edit: I just reread what I put and it looks really rude. I'm sorry. I didn't mean it like that. Congrats on an amazing achievement/reward and thank you for all that you do for your community, our nation, and our world. I guess I'm just trying to get into the mind of a colleague a little bit. Do you see this thirst for recognition in some people you are around who are also up for these awards?

TeachOfTheYear5 karma

One other thing I didn't mention...often those speaking events and awards have prize money. My class hosts a special needs prom and in the beginning my staff and I paid out of pocket. My prize monies have paid for several years of proms and we have enough in my classroom account for a few more. When offered money to speak I have had checks written to the prom account. Those monies have paid for supplies, emergency clothing, field trips, corsages, prom cakes and punch and I have shared with my district (I bought an industrial sewing machine for the physical therapists to make PT equipment) and I recently split a grant down the middle for my kids and the other teachers in my district.(buying them $500 in art supplies and $350 in musical instruments).

I personally need no further recognition but prize money and grant money is often the only monies available to a teacher. Our prom had 234 special needs kids from all over the state attend last year. I can't pay for that out of pocket any more, it has grown too big, so I can beg or I can compete for prize money and grant money.

TeachOfTheYear2 karma

There are different ways to look at what you can do with recognition. To be honest, when I won I thought I had just won a prize and would give a few speeches. But then it sunk in that I was now considered a quotable source in education and people would listen. But I was lucky in some ways because my goal all along has been recognition of people with special needs and gay youth. My awards brought the ability to take their messages to important people.

But you also have to figure out a new path. Often awards follow each other like dominoes. One award gives you the credo to win another award. Add on another and suddenly you are the teacher the New York Times is interviewing. But the people out in the spotlight like that have to stay current which means putting in the extra work. It also means sharing your resume (awards) and that can look like bragging.

I've met every state Teacher of the Year and like every one of them. They all deal with the spotlight differently and they have all had to deal with a crash course in becoming a public figure.

For me, I decided I would not say no to an event unless physically impossible. I actively searched out the groups who represent special ed and gay kids.

I didn't do that for attention or for praise...I did it because I have a hope to make a better world or my kids.

Glane18181 karma

Very honest answer and you really paint a picture of what it would be like for me if I ever won an award like that (and for everyone else in that situation). Thank you for the great response. I love how you still put the focus on the kids, and everything is still about helping the younger generation. Kudos!

TeachOfTheYear1 karma

I do understand though. I feel bad. Ow when I am nominated for things. There are other teachers just as deserving and I don't want to be greedy.

When I filled out the first page to do this AMA I thought I was it was kind of a sales pitch. I was a little shocked when I submitted what I thought was an application but instead the column opened up. So, you actually read what was my sales pitch to Do an AMA, not what I would have said if I'd known it was the actual AMA!

meownikki5 karma

What's the greatest lesson you've learned from a student? And what do you consider the most difficult part about being a special education teacher?

TeachOfTheYear10 karma

These two questions have the same answer oddly enough. There are two paths into my classroom. You are born different and need additional help or you've had an accident. I accept my students for who they are but there is always a ghost of what-might-have-been lingering behind an accident victim. Those families need a different kind of support that can break your heart if you let it. But, seeing grim determination to succeed, puts all my own personal issues into perspective and I have been humbled by the fight and willpower my students have shown me.

Keeping on top of the paperwork comes in second.

acadiabean4 karma

Congratulations! I am so thrilled that you had the honor of being the first Special Education teacher in your state to win Teacher of the Year, and that you were able to share your experiences in such a great way! My question to you, as a future teacher, is what are your feelings on teaching in urban and/or high need areas? I have taught in poor areas of West Africa (no need for licensure there) and currently volunteer in East St. Louis with an after school program while I pursue my degree in Elementary Education, and these have been extremely rewarding. Many of my professors express caution about jumping into high need areas as a new teacher, and I understand that, but I worry if I wait too long to teach in areas of high need I'll get comfortable and never teach where I've planned from the start: in schools that truly need the assistance. Any thoughts? I'd love to hear any and all advice you can give on my conundrum!

TeachOfTheYear5 karma

Your teachers know that the first couple of years are crucial. 1/4 to 1/3 of your class will stop teaching in those three years. Your teachers know that an urban school will be tougher because poverty brings a whole different set of issues into the classroom. My first assistant kept bread and peanut butter in her drawer because you are going to face hungry kids. You will do home visits that will break your heart. Rural teachers face it too, but the pace is a little slower and the communities are a little more tightly knit.

But both sets of kids need an amazing teacher so your heart will lead you where you need to be. Wherever you land, find a mentor teacher to teach you how the school runs. Learn their schedule so things don't pile up on you. Find the creative teacher who makes a lot of their own stuff and ask for copies (free curriculum!). The NEA has tons of free teacher-made curriculum on their GPS Greater Public Schools website--I put mine up there for everyone to use.

Mentor teachers have proven to be one of the best ways to support a new teacher.

acadiabean3 karma

Thank you for your thoughtful answer! Luckily I have lots of teachers in my family, and I'm more than happy to reach out to those with experience, so I'll make sure wherever I end up to utilize that. Thanks again!

TeachOfTheYear2 karma

Thank you also for the kind words! Most of my teaching has been urban poverty areas and I too am drawn to those populations and places. :0) best of luck to you!

Xuanwu1 karma

My university (Australian) runs a program that selects high achieving student teachers and specifically trains them to focus on low SES schools. If you focus on understanding poverty and the effects it brings to your classroom, seek mentoring, make sure to have personal time for rejuvenation, and reflection on your successes and improvement for those bad days you'll be fine.

TeachOfTheYear1 karma

All the research shows poverty affects education, brain development and physical well being. I am glad to hear Australia is focusing the it teacher program to address this!

thoughtful_commenter3 karma

what do you think of these teachers in this post, who were unfair to their pupil? what would you have you done? give at-least two scenarios.

TeachOfTheYear4 karma

Oh man....there are way too many to choose from. I was a total trouble maker in school and was always in some mess or other. First off, nobody likes to be spoken down to so I always do my best to hear them out and get their side of the story. In many of those stories the message is the same..."if they had listened to me..."

My goal is not to catch student and punish them, my goal is to get them to make a better choice next time a similar situation arises. Some kids have been in so much trouble by the time you meet them, that you have to build up their self-esteem so they have a starting point. I make rounds in my room just to compliment everyone who is on task. I'll holler at my assistant across the room, "did you see how good a job so-and-so did?" And this prompts a compliment from whoever hears me. One more "Gosh you are doing awesome," before I move on. That's a whole lot of praise for doing the right thing...after a while you get a taste for praise and lose your desire for trouble.

Since I wasn't there for those stories all I can say is we all have stories of how we were treated unfairly in our youth. But when we feel we were listened to and respected, we come out of the experience stronger.

That's how I would go into those situations.

WC643 karma

What is the funniest thing that ever happened to you, or in your presence, on the job?

TeachOfTheYear7 karma

A student got really angry and drew a picture of me entitled "A Dingo Ate Mr. B." Showing a dingo eating me. I had to look all stern and then go into the hallway and I laughed until Tears were running down my face. I still have that picture!

hungryforhood3 karma

Why did you decide to teach?

TeachOfTheYear8 karma

Teaching was my second career. I took a job subbing and within a few months I took over a special ed class for a teacher who was leaving. I am really good with kids with behavior problems so what might be a hard job for some comes naturally for me. It is also one of those jobs where no two days are ever the same, and there is no mastery of the field. Every year is a whole new bunch of kids, with whole new areas to learn about. My classroom now is multiple handicaps so I have disabilities layered together to figure out. If you are the type who likes constant challenge, this is the perfect job.

diefen_bunker2 karma

Congratulations on your achievement, where would we be without teachers eh? Thanks for answering these questions too! My question for you: What have been some of the best moments of your teaching career? E.g. finding out about a former student being extremely successful, a really fun class activity, etc... :-)

TeachOfTheYear5 karma

Just a few weeks ago a dad stopped by my room to tell me how well his kid is doing. When I met the kid there was a dim future ahead due to extreme behavior. Dad wanted to stop by to tell me their lives have been turned around. His kid has has a job for over a year now and they are planning a big family vacation. He and I stood in the hall and cried a little and then hugged. As a teacher I probably can't change the whole world but I changed that kid's world, and their families. That was truly one of my proudest moments.

jacquesfu2 karma

Congrats by the way not just for the award but for being able to use it as a platform to inspire others. I read somewhere that parents who are more involved show better education outcomes. I've been working with some partners on a new conceptual app that will make it easier to facilitate parent-teacher communication using mobile devices. Have you noticed a difference personally between students you have been able to create a dialog with their parents vs students whose parents just aren't reachable? Do you think an app that could theoretically increase the number of parents you could reach would make a dent in improving education or are there bigger problems out there to solve in your mind?

TeachOfTheYear2 karma

Hmmmm.... School rules have stood in the way of modern communications in so many ways. We aren't allowed to use our smart phones at work. But we do have an iPad (bought with prize money) that would be a viable platform. My district moved my desk out of the room this year so I don't even have a computer in the room that is secure.

I am kind of old school and write notes. On a typical day I'll get 20-30 emails so I tend to not go that route with parents. I don't want to miss anything in an overcrowded mailbox.

But an app that would send notices, group messages, etc. to all parents could be awesome. One that translates would be even better.

playblacksabbathat782 karma

what do you think of the writings / philosophy of John Taylor Gatto?

TeachOfTheYear2 karma

I honestly haven't read much more than Dumbing Us Down. I'd need to do some homework though before I could answer. I will say I am impressed by any teacher New York gives its highest honor to. The state has over 200,000 teachers and to rise to the top of such a field is impressive.

skypilot19952 karma

Hey there I'm in college to be a teacher right now (full title being Secondary Education Socail studies with a minor in theatre). Got any advice for me?

TeachOfTheYear2 karma

You betcha! Read my earlier posts about mentor teachers, that's my biggest piece of advice. Teachers who juggle two content areas get a chance to change focus and stretch themselves. If you run the theater department you will have a new play and a new challenge heading your way every year. That could be very rewarding.

I personally would ask that you think of ways a drama department could reach out to every student. A crowd scene or a chorus number could be the highlight of someone's year if their dream is to get on stage.

Oregon's upcoming 2015 Teacher of the Year is a Social Studies teacher who has done some very cool things.

yellowbana2 karma

What are two pieces of advice you think college students who are thinking about becoming teachers should do?

TeachOfTheYear2 karma

Go spend some time in a classroom! Make sure teaching is the right field for you. Managing 30 kids is an art form and one you must master to succeed. Some people don't have that skill set.

Think of your own favorite teachers and reach out to them for mentorship or advice. If you already have a relationship with an exceptional teacher, use that relationship to be a one of the supports in your own career.

zombiesareboring2 karma

Did you ever have any co-teachers that were a bit over religious? How did you feel working with them?

TeachOfTheYear7 karma

After a supervisor saw me speak (to adults) she gave me an order to stop saying I was gay in public. When I refused I was given an order that all speeches and writing had to be approved in advance by my district. When I fought that they changed it to giving them three weeks notice and pre-approval, which basically meant I was no longer allowed to interviews (since I could not give them what I was going to say in an interview three weeks in advance). I was forced to file a grievance with my union and file state level complaints with both the State and the lBureau of Labor and Industries. My district retaliated by canceling my credit card, refusing to pay my Teacher of the Year mileage from June on, not paying my travel expenses and they moved my desk and computer out of my room down the hall. For the first two months of school my desk was packed and I was not allowed to unpack. The last Friday before break the head of Special Ed threw a party during school hours and every single special ed employee in the building was invited but me and my staff.

So, yes, I have had to deal with bigotry, small minds and punishments all year. I chose to stand up to them which lead to immense retaliation, but all year long I have spoken about bullying and I have been asking my audiences to stand up against bullies. I realized I needed to stand up myself and so have been duking it out with my district ever since..

Hermago2 karma

Wow, I can't belive things like this happen in the civilized world still!

TeachOfTheYear2 karma

I wish i could say it doesn't happen, but I can't.

SmilingObserver2 karma

Seriously I applaud you for keeping your cool. I would have flipped out at that and done some class-Z level stuff.

TeachOfTheYear1 karma

Lol... Can't do that. I would get fired for insubordination. The last day of school the head of my dept. Thre a holiday party and invited every person in the building in my department except me and my staff. I even went up and asked if at least my staff could come and my supervisor said no. They don't play nice.

johnnywalker942 karma

What makes a good teacher?

What are some qualities of a good teacher?

What is the best way to convey information to a group of people?

Should you teach any differently when teaching to children or adults?

Thanks for your time!

TeachOfTheYear2 karma

Hello! Wow... That's a list.

I was attending an NNSTOY (National Network of State Teachers of the Year) conference this summer and I saw some research that was eye opening. People were queried as to what makes a great teacher. The top responses were not what I expected. L These are the traits that our society says are most important in a great teacher. You'll sadly notice that none of those traits or skills are represented or show up in standardized testing scores.

When teaching to a group, always remember that every one of those kids comes to you with a different view on everything. Their experience are unique so therefor their understanding is individual. They also all learn differently.

The really great teachers I know recognize this and are routinely teaching with multiple techniques going on at once. I think this would best be taught with an example. Let's say we are teaching tall and taller using the difference between hills and mountains as an example. A bad teacher would tell you "mountains are taller than hills." Lesson done. The great teacher is going to ask you which is taller and get you involved, she'll rush to the board and draw hills and mountains, she'll have you draw them, she'll make a hill with her left hand, hold it way down low and say "hill" in a tiny tiny voice, then she'll make a mountain with her other hand, hold it high above her head and boom out "MOUNTAIN" then she'll drag out those plastic topographical maps and you'll find the closest mountain, then make it clay, and of course you can do the volcano version, then you'll sit down and draw a picture of a mountain, and a picture of a hill and write a poem about them. People learn from seeing, hearing, experiencing, touching, reading, writing, etc. etc. and a good teacher is teaching to all those learners at the same time in all those different ways.

The same thing goes for adults. You teach to their level of experience but you still try to teach to all those different styles. But those adult students have the same definition as the kids when it comes to their favorite teachers: Great teachers are funny, caring, make the students feel important and successful and they listened.

Babykay2 karma

Thanks for sharing! My question for you is: What have you done to go above and beyond for your students? I am a future special education teacher and often worry about helping my students to the fullest extent. I would love to hear about some of your strategies.

TeachOfTheYear4 karma

Most special ed teachers have an assistant or two. Your assistants will be your future teachers. Watch them closely and dissect what they do that works. My assistants have over 100 years of experience between them! It is like working with an encyclopedia of special education! Their experience and my respect for it has created a fantastic team built on me not thinking I am the smartest person in the room.

Work on team building and classroom supports for everyone in the room, yourself included. I have a belief it is the teacher's role to make their classroom a place you would want to hangout and to make sure everyone has a good day.

And don't forget to think bigger than your classroom. I am Teacher of the Year because I put my curriculum for people with autism up online and shared it. But through that I ended up meeting a lot of people who also share their work.

Rugbyplayah1 karma

Which do you like more. Hamburgers or hot dogs?

TeachOfTheYear4 karma

I love a good Hebrew National but I'm a burger guy.

misterjegden-piss1 karma

How was it to meet such villains?

TeachOfTheYear1 karma

Everyone I met this year was super nice and I saw every meeting as a chance to forward the conversation about kids like mine. Mrs. Clinton, when I met her, knew all about my classroom and had obviously read up on my students. That is my goal, to make all the leaders remember their are kids without a voice who need a hand up.

Teacher of the Year is a funny position politically. You represent teachers, students and their families and that means everyone. I was not Democratic Teacher of the Year or Republican Teacher of the Year, even when I pick my battles I have to keep that in mind.

housingq0 karma


TeachOfTheYear2 karma

I do want to add my initial impression when a saw all 53 Teachers of the Year together this year for the first time. It was beautiful to see the widest variety of people represented. The Teacher of the Year program is an amazing melting pot of races, religions, colors, educations, brains and raw talent that you have ever seen. Some of them were first generation college attendees, some were at the beginning of their careers being honored for innovation, some were veterans who had a lifetime of solid and amazing work who were being honored for raising the quality of education year after year. But I have never been around a group of people like that before. That will always be the biggest honor from all of this. That I was included in a group of such esteemed and amazing people will always be the truest blessing of all of this.

TeachOfTheYear2 karma

This year there are 20 men and 33 women named Teacher of the Year by their state or territory.

I don't know the numbers for each state historically but since 2000 in my state we have had 6 men and 10 women.

On the national level since 1990 there have been 10 male and 16 women Teachers of the Year.

I cannot find recent statistics of the male/female ratio for teachers in the state or for the US. 2006 is the latest I can find and that's a little old to compare to today. But in 2006 women made up 76% of American teachers.