Last night I was honored as a top ten finalist for the California League of High Schools Region 7. It was truly a beautiful and memorable evening. I had my husband and several family members, dear friends, and colleagues there to support me, which meant the world to me. I had to give a speech--one of my biggest fears--but I managed to get through it without stumbling too much, and I'm quite proud of myself for that. Since some of my friends and family members weren't able to come celebrate with me, I thought I'd share the text of my speech here. Just picture me, quavering voice and my signature 'hand gestures' and you'll get an idea of what it looked like:)
Good evening. I want to begin tonight by thanking the California League of High Schools, my fabulous Learning Director, Jennifer Bump, for nominating me, and my family, friends, and colleagues who are here to support me this evening. To be honest, I think most of them are here because they think it might be amusing to see me attempt to speak in front of a group of grown-ups.
As my friends know, I am neither blessed with the voice nor the nerves for public speaking. So when I started thinking about what I might want to say—after the initial panic attack—it occurred to me that it’s okay that I’m not a public speaker—I have found the place where my voice is most at home, and that is in my classroom with my kids. Years ago my beloved mentor, Mrs. Belman, showed this shy kid that she could speak in a way that could impact lives—she could teach. Mrs. Belman helped me find my voice, and now, it is my mission, my passion, my privilege, to help students find theirs.
When I first started out in this profession, I taught a group of kids in a remedial 11th grade English class. These kids came to me disenfranchised, disenchanted, disillusioned. Many were angry and frustrated. We slowly built trust, community, rapport; and they began talking and sharing, and even doing a little writing, though that part was a little slow-going at first. When the first progress reporting period came around, most of them were surprised they were not passing. Several asked me why before class one day. I couldn’t believe they were surprised. I said, “How did you think you were passing if you don’t turn in any work?” The response of one of the students was, “But you like us. You talk to us. You listen to us! In our other classes, no one listens to us, and they don’t like us. We thought you did.”
I had an epiphany then—these kids equated being heard—what they perceived as being liked—with success. They weren’t heard because they weren’t successful, but more importantly, they weren’t successful because they weren’t heard. It broke my heart! They didn’t believe their voices had a place in an academic classroom because that’s the message they had been given. It became my goal to help them find a way to use their voices and their personalities in the academic setting—and enable them to see themselves as part of the conversation, rather than silent spectators in an education that didn’t have a place for them. It’s the very least we should expect for our kids, to know that their voices matter.
On the other hand, some of our kids on the other end of the spectrum already have great confidence in their voices. For those kids, my mission is to help them refine and articulate the voices they are already well on the path to developing. I hope to help them find their place to voice who they are as students, as citizens, as employees, as community members. I hope to help them discover what they are passionate about, and where they want to make their voices heard in the grand and global conversation.
Often, finding one’s voice isn’t about finding one’s academic or vocational passion; sometimes it’s about being able to express something even more fundamental. One example is Tyler: a sweet, creative and artistic young man who was just discovering his voice and testing, in a safe place, how to use his voice to begin… tentatively… to speak who he was and who he was becoming when he said shyly to me, “Here’s a drawing I made for my Valentine. Do you think he’ll like it?” There was no emphasis on the pronoun “he”. Just a brief moment of eye contact—did I hear him?-- I think he’d only come out to a handful of his closest friends, but he felt safe hearing his voice speak who he was with me--practicing sharing his true voice and allowing himself to be heard.
These kids-and hundreds like them who have made my classroom their temporary home on the way to bigger and brighter things—are just like all of us once were. While I’m trying to remember to teach all my standards and differentiate instruction and build strategies and maintain effective classroom management, my kids are really looking first and foremost for one thing: Does my voice matter to you? Can you hear me? I want the answer to always be yes. I want them to know that if they find a home with me where they feel comfortable letting their voices be heard and valued, there’s no telling where they might end up. Artist? Engineer? Construction worker? Public Relations Manager? Teacher? Who knows—maybe even one day speaking in front of a large group of adults.