My Journey as the 2015 Montana State Teacher of the Year

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By Craig Beals, the 2015 Montana State Teacher of the Year

 

With obvious drama I unzipped the small red, hand sewn, heart stitched bag that my grandma made especially for this – to protect my homemade, medieval looking scroll. I reached in and pulled the scroll from the bag and let it slowly unfurl toward the ground. The crowd, a small group of women teachers wearing freshly pressed hijabs, sat quietly on brightly colored children’s chairs watching intently. When the bottom of the scroll reached the floor it let out an audible ‘clunk’, revealing several hundred signatures and large old world script at the top: “2015: Year of the Teacher”.

The teachers had no idea what I was saying but a translator quickly transformed my English into Malay, and as he did, their smiles broadened. The translator explained that this tattered, weathered scroll had traveled the world and that each signature was a clear declaration by each signee that “Teachers Matter.” Each signature was a show of appreciation for what teachers do. Each small signature combined with hundreds of others to become a huge, collective “Thank You” spanning all language barriers. And, as the translator translated, and the ladies smiles grew, one raised her hand and asked in Malay, “May I please sign it?” She stood from the tiny bright orange children’s chair, grabbed a pen, knelt on the floor next to the scroll and slowly, methodically, signed her name. When she looked up, she had a tear streaming down her smiling face.

In that moment, I stared right through her smiling, teary-eyed face, right through the scroll, right through time itself, and I was taken back to where this mission started and when this scroll was “born”.

Eight months prior to standing in front of this group of teachers in the small fishing village of Sukau, Malaysia on the jungle island of Borneo, I had just received word that I was to be named the 2015 Montana Teacher of the Year. My excitement needs no explanation – words cannot describe what was twirling through my brain. And, after I hung up the phone and I stopped levitating above my white tiled kitchen floor, I began to feel a sense of sadness. My brain flashed back to my mom, who taught for 34 years and was, by every imaginable account the Teacher of the Year, but never given the title. I recalled my elementary teachers, who I hold near and dear to my heart because they held me near and dear to their heart. Every one of them was my Teacher of the Year. I looked into my past and saw my middle school teachers, patient beyond measure and instilling in me a love for learning, who in my mind were all the Teacher of the Year. I was reminded of my high school teachers, who somehow found a way to believe in me even when I made it as difficult as possible for them to believe in me. They all should have been named Teacher of the Year.

So, I (unofficially) changed the name of the 2015 Montana Teacher of the Year Banquet to “2015: Year of the Teacher”. I ran to the craft store, patiently waded through aisles of doily thread, stencils, and knitting needles until I found everything I needed to build a medievalesque scroll. When I was done I had made the most official looking scroll anyone had seen since scrolls were actually a thing. At the top, in Old World bold print I wrote “2015: Year of the Teacher”. At the banquet I proclaimed that, “2015 would not be about me, rather it would be a year to celebrate ALL of the amazing teachers who are working tirelessly to change the world.” And with convincing rationale I reminded the crowd that, “If it is on a scroll – it HAS to be official.” With that, 2015 became The Year of the Teacher.

The scroll followed me as I traveled thousands of miles on the back roads of Montana to help spread a positive message about teachers, collecting signatures along the way. It traveled with me to numerous states, including our Nation’s capital where I let it bask in the sun beneath the Washington Monument. In Singapore it doubled as a pillow, cradling my head as I tossed in an out of jet lag consciousness during an extended layover. It was with me in Kuala Lumpur when I squealed as I stuck my feet into a pool of dead-skin eating fish at the local market, the scroll clenched tightly in my right fist as fish nibbled on my toes. And, in Sukau Malaysia, in a cinderblock open-air lime-green schoolroom, I watched as a seasoned teacher stepped back from adding her name to the hundreds of other signatures from around the world – pride glowing from her teary-eyed hijab veiled face.

This year, and my time as the 2015 Montana Teacher of the Year, has taught me a number of things but the lessons of the scroll stand out above the rest. So many people wanted to sign the scroll but were unable to because of geographic separation that I started a website where people could sign a digital scroll and share a positive message to teachers. There were times where I didn’t have the scroll with me so eager signees wrote their name on napkins, scrap pieces of paper and, in one case, a square of (unused) toilet paper.

Why does this matter? Why were people so interested in signing their name to a clunky, childish scroll or longing in to put their name on a webpage? Because teachers matter; teachers impact the world; everybody has had a teacher who changed their life. And, while my mission was to remind teachers that they matter, the Year of the Teacher became so much more – it became a symbol for all that is good about teachers – it became a collective reminder that even though we, teachers, know what we do matters, we sometimes forget. And, if people take time to say “Thank You”, even if it is just with a signature on a scroll, it can cause a seasoned teacher, struggling to teach 40 tiny kids in fishing village in the jungle, to smile and cry in appreciation.

That, dear teacher, is why 2015 has been YOUR year, whether you knew it or not. People all over the world have quietly been professing their thanks to you, one signature at a time. Why? Because you deserve it – you are a teacher.

 

 

 





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