Shanna Peeples, a high school English teacher from Amarillo, Texas, and the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, delivered today a rousing reminder of why millions of educators answer the call and enter the teaching profession: to make a difference in the lives of their students. Peeples addressed nearly 7,000 fellow educators attending NEA’s Representative Assembly in Orlando, Florida.
She encouraged her fellow colleagues to do “battle with stories” by being the “voice” and “champions” of their students.
“Our critics love clichés, simplistic slogans and manipulated data,” said Peeples. “This is how they attack, and the good news is the utter banality of those attacks. Stories are different. There is no defense against a good story…I contend that we advocate best for our students and our profession when we are brave enough to tell our stories.”
Peeples’ students come from diverse backgrounds, as Amarillo is one of several U.S. cities where refugees find new paths in life and gain access to critical resources. As a result, she works with many students who speak English as a second language or have recently entered the country.
She shared the story of how newly enrolled students from Burma and Africa needed to be immersed in reading and writing before she lost them to the area slaughterhouses, which paid $15 an hour and required limited language skills.
The 12-year classroom veteran used visual literacy to build a bridge to written words. Her students drew and created digital narratives that incorporated images and music to tell their stories—many of them heartbreaking—from their home country.
“A standardized test won’t reveal these skills and experiences,” Peeples added, saying that telling the personal stories of students “gives you more insight into them than reams of scores that label them as ‘below proficient.’”
Peeples earned an English degree from West Texas A&M University and a master’s in curriculum from the University of Texas at Arlington. She is a literacy trainer for her district, and she gives presentations across the state as part of the Texas Council of Teachers of English Language Arts.
“Shanna Peeples was among not just friends—but family—when she spoke today at NEA’s Representative Assembly,” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García, who also served as the 1989 Utah Teacher of the Year. “Every day, millions of teachers like Shanna are preparing this nation’s next generation of critical thinkers, artists and leaders. We were reminded by Shanna’s powerful words that if we really want to nurture our students’ potentials and help them realize their dreams, we must instill and foster a love of learning.”
Earlier this year, Peeples was honored by President Barack Obama at a White House ceremony where he praised her innovative teaching style and dedication to mentoring others new to the profession. Continuing a long tradition of excellence in the classroom, Peeples is the 10th NEA member in the past decade to be named the nation’s top teacher. As the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, Peeples will spend a year traveling the nation to represent educators and advocate on behalf of teachers. She also hopes to use the opportunity to shape the conversation about reaching students in poverty, as well as those who have already faced extreme challenges, through a variety of teaching methods.
Peeples also encouraged fellow NEA members to answer the call to teacher leadership, emphasizing her point with a football analogy since the sport is “sacred” in her home state of Texas.
“‘Teacher leadership is a lot like football. There are 22,000 people in the stands who desperately need exercise watching 22 people on the field who desperately need rest,’” Peeples quoted. “It’s why we need to recruit more teacher leaders—so we can catch our breath. Real teacher leadership puts more players on the field and is a force-multiplier of needs-based training delivered in authentic settings.”