2015 National Teacher of the Year Shanna Peeples’ Speech at the 94th NEA Representative Assembly

Orange County Convention Center – Orlando, Florida
Monday, July 6, 2015 – 11:50 a.m. EDT


The teacher I was lucky enough to teach next door to during my first disastrous year of teaching showed me a lot about being a professional. One of the first questions she asked me was if I was an NEA member.

I didn’t know what she was talking about.

“Oh you need to join. I’m going to get you a form today. Trust me, you’ll be glad,” she said.

I filled out that form and I’ve never been more proud of a membership in my life. What an honor to be a member of an organization that fights to keep public education and strong, an organization that knows that empowering the voices of each of its members is crucial to achieving that goal.

From my friends at the Texas State Teachers Association, I learned that the NEA welcomed black members four years before the Civil War and elected a woman president 10 years before women had the right to vote, I thought, this isn’t a group of people who are afraid. These are people who are willing to be brave and fight for those who have been pushed out, left out and singled out.

I feel like I’m writing you a fan letter: You don’t know me but I am your fan. Every NEA member I’ve ever known has taught me to value justice and fairness. Every NEA member I know is a fighter.

To be in your company is an honor—and I mean that sincerely. Meeting you and knowing you has been the best part of this process because you are absolutely obsessed about teaching and relentless in your support of public education. When I think of you, I see warriors of kindness, warriors of hope, and warriors whose spines are absolute steel in their resolve to fight for what matters. You are the best kind of warriors because your mission is to save and serve the most vulnerable members of our society: children. You are their voice and their champions.

So my proposition to you, my fellow warriors, is that we do our best battle with stories. Our critics love clichés, and simplistic slogans and manipulated data—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. Think about it, memes are nothing but micro-stories. I contend that we advocate best for our students and our profession when we are brave enough to tell our stories.

Stories, unlike almost anything else, simplify complexities. Complex answers are second nature to us because we know our jobs are incredibly complex. Instead of lapsing into technicality, we need to do what we do naturally at the end of every day when we walk through the door: we tell stories. Stories—especially teacher stories—have a unique power.

Take for example, the idea of teacher leadership. I have two stories about teacher leadership—the first is a comparison that I find works really well in Texas because football is sacred. The comparison goes like this: “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.”

Which gets at the why of teacher leadership much more memorably than my bloated exposition. It conveys the idea that the same group of people are usually doing most of the work and burning themselves out. 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.

Two years ago, we hired a bright young man in our department. As his dept. chair, I didn’t give him much support or much in the way of leadership experiences. That seemed like too much time. My neglect allowed all kinds of bad things to happen, not the least of which was his own despair. It wouldn’t be long, it seemed, until he quit. That summer was a crossroad for me because I was invited to leave my campus for an administrative position. I thought about him—about my students—and decided to stay. My principal and I collaborated on the creation of a hybrid position for me: teach for half the day, coach teachers the other half. With this new role, I was able to have time to really listen to him, to find out what his goals were and what I could do to help him achieve them. We decided to switch him to a different grade level, give him real responsibility on his team, and create a path for him to become a district literacy trainer.

He went from burnt out to fired up once he was given real opportunities to lead, to unite, and to inspire his colleagues.

Teacher leadership is critical for public education today because there are so many teachers like him and like me. One who wants to quit and one tempted toward administration. We have to keep our best teachers teaching by giving them real positions of leadership and real responsibility. Part of the most-cited reasons for teachers leaving the profession is the pressure of so much responsibility with so little say in what happens.

That story simplifies without being simplistic. You can certainly think of similar examples from your own practice.

Stories stay after the data fades. In education, we have an almost dysfunctional relationship with data, as if the raw scores and scale scores will arrange themselves into arrows pointing this way or that way. I like the way Dave Zirin talks about data: “ Statistics are like a bikini. They show so much, but they hide the most important parts.”

And, as we know, the most important parts of our jobs are students. Each data point is a person, which our critics often forget in their zeal to rate and evaluate. And people are notoriously difficult to standardize. But what we as teachers know, is that our lessons have to affect both the head and the heart. They have to involve students in real work for real outcomes.

The first year I taught refugee students, my co-teacher and I had almost no knowledge of how to work with students from countries other than Mexico. We made lots and lots of mistakes, but we knew that we had to provide authentic reasons for these students, mostly from Burma and Africa, to engage in reading and writing or we would lose them to the killing floor of our local slaughterhouse where they could make up to $15 an hour with not much language skill.

We decided to use their visual literacy to build a bridge to written words. So, we began with drawings. I used a prompt that first day that I’ve used my entire career: “Draw something you’ll never forget.” Mostly, I get drawings about roller coasters and puppies and maybe one or two about when a beloved grandparent passes away. I was totally unprepared for my refugee students drawings. They drew very detailed scenes of small huts on fire, of beatings, of leaving family members behind a razor-wire fence—and most disturbingly, of small children being bayoneted by soldiers.

Those same students, with help, created digital narratives of their experiences that used images and music to communicate their experience in an authentic way that has engaged every audience who has seen them.

Now, a standardized test won’t reveal these skills and experiences, but I propose that this story is still data, but more importantly, that me telling this story gives you more insight into them than reams of scores that label them as “below proficient.”

Finally, stories tell the truth in a memorable way. Kate DiCamillo, the fabulous author, wrote, in The Tale of Despereaux, “Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark. Make some light.” And so I want to end with a dark story, but don’t worry, it doesn’t stay dark.

Once upon a time, there was a little girl who knew that monsters must somehow live inside bottles of whiskey because they could turn otherwise good people into someone who grabbed her by the throat and shoved her against the wall until she nearly quit breathing. Or someone who would take a baseball bat to her mother’s face. Or someone that did other, much darker things when no one who wasn’t drinking whiskey was around.

The monsters sometimes made bargains with her. They taught her how to drive a car when she was 12 years old so she could get her father home from the bar without another DUI charge. Once, she drove across two states with her mother out cold in the back seat and her mother’s boyfriend so drunk in the front seat that she had to drive with one arm holding him off her. She learned to live with her fists clenched, on guard at all times, because she was the oldest and her siblings were too little to take a punch.

But she had school. And teachers. Teachers who gave her books and paper and pencils and taught her how to write when she wanted to hit, when she wanted to scream, or quit. Teachers showed her that books could take her anywhere and that she could literally write herself new beginnings. That little girl was lucky enough to have teachers who were her warriors. Who helped her to fight off the despair that came with her to school every day like a stray dog. The little girl learned that teachers are the best kinds of heroes because they showed her how to turn fear into faith. Faith in her ability to think, faith in her ability to create her own path, faith to believe in herself.

That little girl was me and I teach for her and everyone just like her. Every little boy who knows the kind of fear that addiction brings. Every little girl who knows the kind of fear that poverty brings.

Inside of you is a child who has known light and darkness, and each of you teaches for the little girl and the little boy inside of you.

We teach for them. We are important to our students in ways we can never really understand. I know this because I know my own teachers don’t realize how deep their faith in me went or how it kept me going. Without the patience, kindness and direction of my wonderful teachers, I don’t think I would be where I am today. My teachers were light in dark places for me. You are the light for your students.

Not all children struggle with dark stories. There is light in the face of the young man with Downs Syndrome who is good friends with another child on my campus who cannot speak. I watched them in the cafeteria for weeks. The boy who cannot speak is in a wheelchair, but he clapped his hands when he saw his friend, the young man with Downs. The young man’s face lit up with a smile that would break your heart in its purity and joy. He clapped back. The boy in the wheelchair shrieked with delight and patted his head. The young man smiled and patted his head. And in this way, they had the most hilarious lunch. Where, but public school, does that happen?

We also teach for the children who come with stability and curiosity, like my own children and yours, but they still need us to light the paths they may never consider unless we show them.

And so my light-bearing, storytelling warriors, What stories will you tell? What are the ones that make you laugh no matter how many times you tell them? What are the ones you’ve been afraid to tell? The ones you think will break your heart? Those are the very ones you need to tell.

Erin Morgenstern, in her novel, The Night Circus, said: “Someone needs to tell those tales. When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There’s magic in that. It’s in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict. From the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.”

Thank you.