Last year at this time I was honored and celebrated with 15 other County Teachers of the Year, including 2015 Maine Teacher of the Year Jennifer Dorman. It was humbling, strange and a little bit embarrassing. It’s not often that the spotlight is on the teacher instead of the student.

It’s our life’s work to make sure everything we do is student-centered. After months of writing self-reflecting essays, submitting videos and answering interview questions, there I was, standing on stage at the end of a long line of inspirational, passionate individuals, wondering what on Earth comes next: Is this it? Do we all go back home, sharpen our pencils and resume our work as if this had all been a little holiday?

I found that to be unlikely.

I felt a responsibility to make the best of this opportunity, for myself and my students. In the end, I turned the question inward and asked, “How can I continue to improve as an effective educator and leader? What resources are available to me now that I wasn’t aware of before?”

I knew I needed to say “yes!” to opportunities, “tell me more!” to inspiring people and to encourage myself to be bold for my students.

I needed to begin by finding my voice.

A teacher’s voice

Do you speak up when you see an injustice? Would you be willing to stand up for your students by speaking to your school board, superintendent or legislators?

I, along with several county and state teachers of the year, attended a workshop on messaging that was sponsored by the National Board for Professional Learning Standards. I knew the workshop would be centered around the importance of advocacy, but I had never really thought about the importance of messaging.

Have you ever had that moment when you think, “Boy, I am really riled up about X, Y or Z. If (insert name here) was here right now, I would tell her…”

Well, what if you were walking down the hallway, or stepping into an elevator, and “tada!” there she was. Would you be able to succinctly tell the person what you were thinking? What if you had 30 seconds? Fifteen seconds? Ten seconds?

What if the person you want to talk to is a legislator? Would he or she want to hear what you have to say?

(Answer: Yes! But be succinct in defining the problem, be ready to offer research, and share what you’ve already tried and possible solutions.)

I learned I am my students’ best advocate for effective teaching and learning, but I must be bold. We don’t have to be state or county teachers of the year to have our voices heard. But we do need to take the steps to become aware of educational policy, and, if the need arises, be ready to inform policy.

Teachers as leaders

William Arthur Ward is quoted as saying, “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”

I believe we become a teacher who inspires when we make the time to learn from each other. One of us is not as smart as all of us.

I signed up for a conference hosted by the Maine Arts Assessment Initiative. I was so inspired by its philosophy, I applied and was later accepted as one of their 70+ teacher leaders. It was such a transformative experience to be working side by side with exceptional arts teacher leaders.

Together, we worked to support teachers’ individual needs by creating high-quality workshops, webinars and resources around assessment, proficiency-based learning and student-centered learning.

I was honored to be a part of the team from the MAAI that attended the Teach to Lead Summit hosted by the U.S. Department of Education in Washington D.C. We learned that teacher leadership is more than just a movement. It is a way to retain veteran teachers, increase collaboration, build positive school culture and help schools successfully meet the emerging needs of students and teachers.

On the last day of the summit, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sat down at our table. Here was our chance to practice our elevator messages! It was a moment I will not soon forget.

We returned to Maine as the newly named Maine Arts Leadership Initiative and immediately offered professional development opportunities to share what we had learned with the rest of the organization and other educators throughout the state. We also shared what we had learned at the ECET2 (Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teachers and Teaching) conference at Colby College, a conference I highly recommend for those wanting to know more about growing teacher leadership in Maine.

Do you aspire to be a better teacher or teacher leader? Surround yourself with educators who inspire, challenge, and most importantly, are ready to celebrate with you.

What’s next?

All of the County Teachers of the Year were given gigantic banners at the Gala last year. I suppose some might think I am pretentious for hanging mine in my music room. But I love it. It symbolizes everything teachers believe in: “Teach. Learn. Lead.”

It reminds me what can happen when you surround yourself with inspiring educators who challenge you to be your best. Everything I do, everything, is done with students’ learning in mind.

It is a journey, not a destination. What adventures lie ahead? Will you lead? Let’s go! The kids need us.

Kate Smith is a music teacher in South Berwick’s RSU 35 and is the 2014 York County Teacher of the Year.