"Why on earth would you want to go there?" I've heard that more than once this year. It's no secret that Berkeley and Jefferson counties are strikingly different than much of the rest of West Virginia. With a vein of Interstate 81 running through our area and a steady stream of relocating families from the D.C. metro, our county appears prosperous on an unimaginable scale to those whose towns and livelihoods are crumbling. The farthest reaching counties of the Eastern Panhandle are like a bulging, sculpted bicep on a body crippled with the side effects of poverty and a headache of a recent water crisis.
That's why I have to go "there" - and any other forgotten place in this state that will have me. Being teacher of the year is not a prize, and the longer I am in this role, I feel that it's not even an award. Awards don't take you away from your family for lonely days on end (I can't imagine doing this with young children), have you up hours late at night packing and planning when you body is pleading with you for a full night's rest, or positively break your heart when you view the broken circumstances of children and their communities. This is an experience, an opportunity to view this state through the lens of an educator. It's a chance to break through the isolation that geographically divides us. I'm not part of a part anymore, but of a whole - and there are many things you must simply see to understand. I go "there" because I represent every teacher and student, and I want to know them.
I began my trip to Brooke County feeling grey (if I could choose a color) and frustrated. Unsure of the area - my last visit to the Northern Panhandle was more than ten years ago - I became increasingly distressed as I tried to navigate the road construction and obey GPS directions, to no avail ("Recalculating..."). I was doubting the impact I was really having on anyone. I left my camera I use for Be the Difference WV at home, feeling that maybe I was just wasting time sharing stories and inconveniencing people who had greater priorities than to endure questioning under the watchful lens of my 3 megapixel recorder.
The first school I visited was Bethany College to speak to their education majors about Web 2.0 tools. Bethany is a beautiful school of about 800 students - the architecture of its main building reminds me of a castle. The Hurl Building, where the education program is housed, is a former high, middle, and elementary school. You can still see the eraser marks on the bricks where the students beat the chalk out of them against the building. I'm appreciative to professor Angela Icard for hosting me for the afternoon.
|The Hurl Building at Bethany College|
The next day I went to Follansbee Middle School to speak to their students about Control Your S.E.L.F. (Social Life and Media, Education, Lifestyle, Future). Follansbee has around 500 students in grades five through eight (many schools in the state have fifth grade in their middle schools). I was really impressed that Michelene Mills, the school's new principal, took the time to arrange for me to speak to the student body. My visit and message of making positive choices became even more timely, as the day before a high school student stabbed 21 other students in Pittsburgh, just 45 minutes away. A reporter from the Steubenville (Ohio) Daily Star came to speak to me about my program and how it relates to middle school students; you can read the story at this link. It just goes to show that you never know what you have to say will become incredibly relevant. One of the fifth graders quietly came up to me when she was leaving the auditorium and said "I think you taught a lot of people some life lessons today."
I ended the day with a visit to Colliers Primary, a West Virginia School of Excellence. Many of the teachers at Colliers were there when I was named teacher of the year in October. As part of their positive behavior recognition for the third nine weeks, I shared Berkeley and his Sugar Maple Friends with their students in grades Kindergarten through fourth. Berkeley brings joy wherever he goes. With a little black bear and his perspective on his adventures, I'm able to share my journey with a generation of West Virginians that can use the generated excitement to be curious about their world and contribute to their community.
The students, as always, left me with joy and purpose. If I accomplish nothing else this year, I know that what I've done positively impacts children. As I packed up to go home (and asked for directions to avoid getting on the Pennsylvania Turnpike), I talked to the teachers and staff about the area. Brooke and Hancock counties, once prosperous from the steel industry, have seen a lot of economic hardship in recent times and a decline in population - both of which impacts the outlook and opportunities for students.
As I walked out of the gymnasium, the custodian, unfolding tables for tomorrow's breakfast, said "I wish more people would focus on the good news. Most of what we see and hear about schools is so negative. These kids and adults need to know what's going on in schools that's right."
The good news. The people I meet along this journey teach me so much at unexpected times. What we do to highlight and show appreciation for those around us is never wasted. People want to be lifted up, and with the mounting stress and fatigue, I had forgotten that. This year is about the people of West Virginia - their stories, their future. Within two days, I had met future teachers, a middle school student body and their determined, hard working principal, and the students and staff of a small, successful primary school. My travels are the opportunity to teach others about what is truly needed to use education as a change agent - and give others a voice.
There is hope and potential wherever I go - and I wish I would have brought my camera.