WHAT I’VE LEARNED FROM THIS YEAR’S TEACHER OF THE YEAR

Last Tuesday night was one of my proudest moments as I watched my wife Susan receive the Coweta County Teacher of the Year Award. There was little fanfare or news coverage outside an article in our small town paper and social media posts from friends and family. There were no cash prizes (or at least she didn’t tell me about it). I was and am proud for a different reason - not because she won, but because I know what has happened behind the scenes providing her the opportunity to win. Here are some practices I have seen and am learning from my wife that might help you on your journey as well.

GROW WHERE YOU ARE PLANTED

I watched Susan cut her teeth in education as a 22 year old rookie in rural Texas, where some of her students were 21 years old and few had educational aspirations beyond high school. She was as far from the limelight and opportunities for recognition as one could be. It would have been easy to adopt an endure-until-something-better-comes-along mindset, but this farming and cowboy community provided the perfect environment to establish a core conviction that influence, not recognition, would be her life’s aim. Ironically, when one pursues influence, recognition often follows; when recognition is sought, influence is often forfeited. Jesus said about those who seek recognition, “they have received their reward in full.” In other words, that’s all they get. How sad.

LIVE BY YOUR VALUES

After four years of teaching, I watched Susan leave the profession she loves for something she loves more - our family. Those 17 years away from the classroom, raising kids, are years that surely would have helped her rise to the top of her field sooner. Yet, rising to the top was never her goal; living by her values was and still is.

WORK HARD - THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS

Over the past few years Susan has been privileged to have been recognized and rewarded in several ways at her school and in her profession. From the outside it might seem like things simply fall into place, that everything she touches turns to gold. From the inside it is a different story. I have watched her almost every single night for years come home from her 8-4 job (that’s all teachers work, right?!) and keep working until 10 pm. She makes time for exercise, cooking, and family, but then she is back at it writing blog posts, articles, books, reading, and chatting with educators on social media. One author’s book title, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, is a great description of Susan’s life as a teacher this last decade. If one works hard enough long enough there is a good chance of eventually experiencing a breakthrough. Most never make it that far because the effort required is too great. Susan has many gifts but I believe her competitive advantage is her work ethic. There is simply no substitute for showing up every single day and giving it your best.

PUT OTHERS FIRST

Zig Zigler famously said, "You will get all you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want." The key to this life philosophy is understanding that “getting all you want” is not the goal; it is the result. The goal is to serve others.

Susan is laser focused on her work, but she is first a people person. Because of her concern for others she often has students and colleagues in her room before and after school sharing their lives - both the victories and struggles. She is quick to say a prayer, write a note, or prepare a meal for friends going through challenging situations. As department chair, she leads with a question, not a directive. That question is, “How can I help you?” To genuinely ask this question means the asker is hoping for a response. The asker has answered the request with a “yes” before she hears an answer (unless the request is to help with math homework).

Every characteristic described above is available to every person. There is not a special skill set required to be successful. Does Susan have unique skills she was born with? Absolutely; but so do you. Has she developed other abilities that help her in her profession? Sure, but so can you. The truth is it is not primarily talent and abilities that take one to the top. As my friend Randy Gravitt says, “If your heart is not right, no one cares about your skills.” Your heart, character, and choices lay the foundation that will allow your talents to be seen.

Which of the descriptions above do you need to give attention to in the weeks ahead?