National Teacher of the Year focuses on hope and inspiration

Ignore the naysayers, follow your passion and don’t let fear slow you down, 2015 National Teacher of the Year Shanna Peeples told an audience of aspiring educators at IU Bloomington today.

“Any time someone tries to tell you you’re just a teacher – or just an education major – I want you to think about the warrior line of people you’re joining,” she said. “Fear is easy. Fear is cheap. And that’s why we see so much of it.”

Shanna Peeples (Council of Chief State School Officers photo)

Shanna Peeples (Council of Chief State School Officers photo)

Peeples, a high school English teacher in Amarillo, Texas, spoke at the Indiana University School of Education in a program sponsored by Inspire Living-Learning Center and the Office of Recruitment and Retention for Underrepresented Students in the School of Education.

Introduced by 2015 Indiana Teacher of the Year Kathy Nimmer of Lafayette, Peeples said she avoided the classroom for years because she thought teaching lacked glamour. She worked as a disc jockey, a Beverly Hills pet-sitter, a medical assistant and a newspaper reporter but didn’t find fulfillment.

So she left California, went home to Texas and listened to the inner voice calling her to be a teacher.

“Teaching gives you a chance to live a life of meaning and true purpose,” she said. “Only teaching can do that, for me.”

Peeples said she takes inspiration from her students and also from the teachers she has met in travels for the Teacher of the Year program, sponsored since 1952 by the Council of Chief State School Officers. In particular, she was in awe of teachers she met on a trip to the Middle East.

In Gaza, she said, Palestinian teachers are “bearers of hope” who use makeshift materials to rebuild schools that are destroyed by rocket attacks. They keep teaching despite uncertainty about when and even whether they will be paid.

In Lebanon, teachers work double shifts to serve an influx of 100,000 students who fled the civil war in neighboring Syria yet worry about another 200,000 refugee children who aren’t enrolled in school.

“When you rip your teachers out of society, you’ve ripped your future out,” Peeples said. “What is a schoolhouse except a symbol of the future?”

Peeples and Nimmer lamented what they called the “negative narrative” that America’s public schools are failing and teachers are at fault. While much of the public may share that view, they said, most parents – the people in the best position to know – think their children’s schools are pretty good.

Peeples said teachers should “teach who’s in front of you,” focus on the positive and make a difference where they can.

“If you are a teacher,” she said, “you know that hope isn’t an abstract concept. You know that hope is a real thing. And you know that hope is the only thing we have to beat back fear.”


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