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Representing Educators: Reflections on the Teacher of the Year Process

Friday, November 18, 2016

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“This award is not saying you’re the best teacher in Wisconsin,” observes Chris Gleason, the state’s 2016-17 representative in the National Teacher of the Year Program, who recently filed his application for the national honor.

“I don’t know if on some days I’m the best teacher in my hallway – I love that quote.”

Chris Gleason
Chris Gleason.

Indeed, identifying the “best” teachers in Wisconsin would be an impossibility.

Instead, the process starts by identifying four of the many Wisconsin teachers who are great at what they do, designating these Wisconsin Teachers of the Year as representatives of the teaching profession for that year.

From at least as far back as 1990, the selection process has piggybacked on the similar criteria of the Herb Kohl Educational Foundation’s Teacher Fellowships. Each year’s Kohl Fellows are considered for four Wisconsin Teacher of the Year slots. For more than a decade, the Kohl Foundation has also sponsored monetary awards for the Wisconsin Teachers of the Year.

Chosen from these four honorees, the state’s national representative is just that: not the “best of the four,” but the one seen as the best fit to represent the state’s teachers on the national stage that year.

That person also applies for the next level – to represent all teachers in the nation as the National Teacher of the Year. This “has been a humbling experience,” Gleason told DPI-ConnectEd, “but at the same time it’s like, we get one shot at this, no do-overs.”

He and the other three Wisconsin honorees are “really energized, saying how can we make the biggest impact” for good, with the attention that comes from being identified as a Wisconsin Teacher of the Year.

Gleason worked hard on his application with the ambition of communicating to the nation the “complexity of education.”

“To say, this is a really difficult task, we’re working with human beings, who have spirits and souls and desires and wishes and everything else. It takes special people to do this, it’s not something you just tick off a sheet and say, ‘Done.’

“You’ve got to keep working.”

Education is “kind of like money and religion,” Gleason says: people often have strong opinions reflecting their own backgrounds, their own personalities.

But if good research and great methods can prevail, he senses society may be “on the cusp of some really great things.”

“You can see it poking through, some personalized learning and different ways of collaborating, looking at kids differently.

“Rather than this jar or vessel that we just fill up with facts, looking at them as these really creative little beings that have this infinite amount of potential to think creatively and do things in a different way.”

If Gleason receives the national honor this school year, he would be the second in Wisconsin history.

Helen 'Missy' Adams with her award. Photo taken later in her life.
Helen “Missy” Adams, so far Wisconsin’s only National
Teacher of the Year. Photo: Erik Daily, printed in the
La Crosse Tribune
in 2003. 

The first was Helen “Missy” Adams, a kindergarten teacher in the Cumberland School District, in 1961. Adams was lauded by Look magazine (then a co-sponsor of the National Teacher of the Year program) for “the unstinting love and skillful technique that mark a great kindergarten teacher.”

Her 2007 obituary in the Superior Telegram observed that in Cumberland, “her name came to symbolize the best in elementary education as she helped youngsters begin their educational careers in the most positive, loving and effective way.” After retirement, she moved to La Crosse.

The National Teacher of the Year program is expected to announce its 4 finalists for 2017 in February and the National Teacher of the Year later in the spring.

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