At a recent gathering of the 2015 County Teachers of the Year, we were asked what it meant to be honored with the award. While I didn’t share at the meeting, it has been on my mind. The nominations are open now for the 2016 County Teachers of the Year, so I share this so others might be able to understand how grateful I am for this whole process and how important it can be for us as teachers.

As a young 20-something, I accepted a job as an educational technician. That first year, I learned many things about my life. It turns out that I didn’t know it all and that being an educator was hard. Much harder than I had thought.

One particular day, while sitting in a professional development session, I heard someone give such an in-depth definition of poverty and homelessness that it gave me chills.

In that moment, I realized two truths: I was a child of poverty, and I had been homeless on more than one occasion. 

I understand how absurd it sounds to have realized as an adult that I grew up poor. We were never homeless in the typical sense. We never lived on the streets. I always had a place to call home, although I always knew it was temporary. I knew, of course, that we didn’t have a lot of money. We moved from rental to rental. We lived with grandparents. We lived with friends. We lived at a campground one summer. In my brain, though, that meant we were fun and adventurous.

My parents didn’t let it feel like we were poor, just that we lived differently. Free lunch was something that the poor kids had. At my house, we looked for and counted change every morning for lunch money.

Growing up, there were three elementary schools in town. One’s address dictated one’s school. Despite moving across town at least once a year, my principal let me stay for my entire K-5 experience. My mom told me it was because I was the smart kid, the good kid, and he needed more kids like me at his school.

As an adult working in education, I became aware that the truth was probably closer to the fact that he felt sad for me — knowing that we would move again, and it was in my best interest to stay in one place.

Understanding my childhood in context was a defining moment that forced me to reflect on my past. I had been the very definition of a child at risk, and the odds had not been in my favor. It was not a happy truth to self-realize. 

Over the next eight years, I gave my all to a job that didn’t give me much in return. I continued to place myself in the role of “child at risk.” My confidence was non-existent, and I found myself playing the role of follower and never of leader. 

Not too long ago, I took a job in my current district. The people here were amazing, and I started to come out of my shell a little bit. A very little bit. While several peers, my principal included, encouraged me to take a leadership role, I hesitated. Who was I to influence people? 

Being honored as a County Teacher of the Year has changed some things. While I am still very aware of how I was defined as a child, I am opening up to some new ideas and definitions. It turns out that what I do is important. It turns out that what I do is pretty darn good. I have a new label, one that I happen to think is pretty impressive. 

I can’t rightly capture the feelings of confidence that this experience has given me, but rest assured that it’s there.

This program has allowed me to finally accept what I have held at bay for so long. I am capable of things my childhood labels restricted me from doing. It all seems so simplistic, but trading labels from “homeless” and “poverty-stricken” to “County Teacher of the Year” has been a game changer.

And I like it. It’s helping to fuel the fire of what I already do with my students and using that same passion when I interact with adults.

In my daily life, I’ve decided that I should have a voice.

If I don’t take a leadership role now, when will I? I need to represent the rest of us. Those of us who label ourselves and doubt our abilities. Those of us who are content being unrecognized. It’s not an easy task to change one’s nature — one’s very core — but I think that this recognition is helping me with that.

My gratitude is endless. 

Fallyn Adams teaches fifth grade at Union Elementary School and is the 2015 Knox County Teacher of the Year.