TOY Program Helps Tell Teachers' Stories

  • Ashley Holt Patterson The following article is from the spring 2016 issue of INSIGHT, the professional journal of the Texas Association of School Administrators. It was written by Ashley Holt Patterson, the communications specialist at ESC Region 7 ESC in Kilgore. A Texas School Public Relations Association member since 2005 and the current East Texas area vice president, Patterson has worked in public relations at a higher education institution and for Pasadena, Alvin, and Comal ISDs.  

    Have you ever read a Teacher of the Year (TOY) application from a campus or district nominee? If not, it’s a must. I’ve been coordinating TOY programs my entire career, and I have a ritual for reading the applications. As soon as the last submission slides across my desk (or appears in my inbox), I shut my office door, pull out a box of tissues, and start reading.

    For the past 10 years, I’ve learned where the good content is in an application, and I go straight to it. I always know what I’m about to read will likely destroy my makeup, but I can’t help it. I have to read on. These teachers aren’t just filling in the blanks on an application; they are telling compelling stories about the successes and challenges they experience and face every day as they educate, guide, and nurture the future of our nation — stories that, left unprompted, might otherwise go untold.

    Now, more than ever, teachers need to share their compelling stories uninhibitedly to help restore the public’s perception of public schools. We need to support the teaching profession and inspire teachers to self-advocate. But teachers are scared — and rightfully so — to speak up in today’s educational environment.

    How, then, can we more effectively use the TOY program to maximize the influence our teachers have? Together, school leaders can leverage TOY programs at the local and regional levels to create opportunities for reflection, recognition, collaboration, and leadership. The TOY program can serve as the vehicle for developing a network of exceptional TOY storytellers and advocates.

    About the TOY Program

    The TOY program offers participating teachers the highest state honor available to Texas public school teachers, the Texas Teacher of the Year award. To be eligible for the top award, teachers must advance through a tiered selection process: Campus Teacher of the Year, District Teacher of the Year, and Regional Teacher of the Year.

    Region 7 is one of 20 educational service centers (ESCs) in Texas that facilitate the Regional Teacher of the Year awards for the districts in its service area, which includes 104 districts and charter schools across 17 East Texas counties.

    To participate in the Region 7 Teacher of the Year regional awards program, area districts must submit the applications of their elementary and/or secondary district-wide winners. (Find instructions on how to implement the TOY program at your campus or in your district.) Selection processes vary by ESC.

    As the program coordinator in Region 7, I find three to five judges (different every year) who are former East Texas area educators and administrators to review and score the applications based on a set of criteria. The candidates receiving the highest elementary score and the highest secondary score are named Region 7 Teachers of the Year.

    The ESCs submit a total of 40 regional nominees (one elementary and one secondary per ESC) in early August for the Texas Teacher of the Year program, which TASA facilitates. TASA then conducts its process for selecting six finalists out of the 40 regional candidates.

    Following an interview process, the Texas Elementary Teacher of the Year and the Texas Secondary Teacher of the Year are selected. One of the two state winners is selected to represent Texas in the National Teacher of the Year program. 

    Every opportunity a TOY winner and/or nominee has for reflection, recognition, collaboration, or leadership in the TOY capacity is one in which they can share their stories and the district’s good news.

    Opportunities for Reflection

    At the regional and state levels, the TOY program often is viewed by teachers as a rigorous process, due to a series of essay questions that require the nominees to reflect on and describe their professional experiences, views on current educational issues, and the teaching profession.

    Reflection is essential to a teacher’s efforts to improve his or her practice and, in this case, to tell a story.

    The 2015 Texas Elementary Teacher of the Year Whitney Crews, who is a sixth grade math and social studies teacher at E.J. Moss Intermediate School in Lindale ISD and our 2015 Region 7 Elementary Teacher of the Year, says the opportunity to reflect is highly beneficial.

    “It helps us realize the power of our own voice and of our profession,” she says. “It gives us a chance to articulate what teaching means to us, which is something that sometimes gets lost along the way for veteran teachers.”

    In an educational environment clouded with bad press, ongoing legislative change, pressures of high-stakes testing, and poor public perception, learning to recognize the great things teachers are doing statewide is another important aspect for TOY program participants.

    This ability allows teachers’ practices to be reinforced by peers through the sharing of ideas, constructive review, and praise. Ultimately, a teacher is then able to support the teaching profession in a meaningful way. Crews says the support is evident in her new network of fellow Teachers of the Year.

    “I have become part of a network that I can call on for ideas, inspiration, motivation and support, which, in turn, will benefit my students and class,” she says. “I have learned I am not alone in occasionally feeling like a failure in the classroom. Teachers are very hard on themselves and sometimes we just need to be reminded that tomorrow is a new day.”

    Opportunities for Recognition

    Appreciation is a basic human need, and Teachers of the Year are well-deserving of being celebrated in front of their peers, administrators, students and community.

    Administrators in Palestine ISD, another district in the Region 7 service area, do a great job of ensuring district TOYs are recognized through several district and community events, including the district’s back-to-school convocation and annual employee service awards events.

    Palestine ISD’s district winners also are recognized at an annual chamber of commerce event, where the Citizen of the Year and other community members are recognized.

    “Teachers are not necessarily paid to promote public education; they are paid to teach,” says Palestine ISD Superintendent Jason Marshall. “So, when they get an opportunity to share good things, people tend to listen.”

    Being recognized through multiple venues isn’t necessarily enough, though. Administrators should take care to ensure the ceremonies and events are special.

    Every year in October, ESC Region 7 hosts a regional reception for all the district nominees, two regional winners, and their principals, superintendents and families. With the help of a couple of communications and digital learning staff members, we were able to really personalize the reception.

    In 2015, our ESC Region 7 digital learning specialist and I packed up a camera and visited the two regional winners at their campuses. The outcome was two great five-minute videos of each regional winner, teaching and telling their stories. We played the videos when we announced each teacher at the reception, which clearly moved nearly everyone in the room. The videos were posted to our website.

    “The Teacher of the Year reception is my favorite event,” says ESC Region 7 Executive Director Elizabeth Abernethy. “Meeting these teachers and having the opportunity to honor them in front of their peers, administrators, and families for the work they do in the lives of our students is truly a blessing. It reminds us of why we do what we do.”

    Abernethy calls the names of each nominee to walk to the front of the room, where several other Region 7 administrators present them with a certificate and gift. Last year, we added a slideshow that displayed a slide for the nominees as their names were called. The slides included their pictures and quotes from their applications. It was a small way to further personalize the reception, but it was received well and greatly appreciated.

    Other opportunities for recognition could include involving community organizations and businesses to provide cash awards or other prizes for nominees and winners. Involving your community expands the reach of your teacher’s story and the impact it has on people outside the immediate school community.

    Opportunities for Collaboration

    Opportunities for collaboration in the TOY capacity should be extended throughout the winner’s title year to ensure he or she is able to represent your school and district until the next year’s selection process.

    Region 7 administrators and teaching staff collaborate with the district and regional Teachers of the Year for training opportunities. In April 2015, Crews presented to Region 7’s Teacher Preparation and Certification Program interns.

    “Inviting Whitney to present was a wonderful opportunity for our interns to hear from someone who is in the classroom daily and who is a recipient of this prestigious award,” says Regina Davis, ESC Region 7 associate director for curriculum services. “She is so humble and made them feel completely at ease to pick her brain. They were awed by the way her classroom functions, and she helped them realize they too could have a similar classroom.”

    Crews was able to collaborate with peers from across the nation in her Texas Teacher of the Year role. In July 2015, she attended the National Network of State Teachers of the Year conference in Utah, where she had the chance to network and collaborate with state TOYs from various states and years. Districts could work with their ESCs to coordinate a similar regional network that could provide monthly or quarterly member meetings and trainings, when needed.

    Another option for implementing opportunities for collaboration are regional and statewide cohort, conference, and training events.

    Opportunities for Leadership

    Requiring district winners to serve as mentors, coaches, instructional specialists, or professional learning facilitators for their title year is one way in which school leaders can provide leadership opportunities for TOYs. Crews participates in Lindale ISD’s mentor program, where veteran teachers work closely with new teachers or teachers new to the district.

    “Teacher of the Year, along with our district mentoring program, is an opportunity to recognize teacher leaders and provide models of excellence to teachers who are new to the district,” says Lindale ISD Superintendent Stan Surratt.

    For districts that have a new-teacher orientation program, district TOYs could serve as presenters to help set an example for new teachers.

    Leveraging the TOY program isn’t the only answer to helping teachers become storytellers and advocates for education and the teaching profession. Other statewide educator recognition programs also can provide school leaders with an avenue to share their good news. However, the TOY program is a great start in the right direction and an opportunity for school leaders to make use of a program that is already in place with regional, state and national support.

Teachers as Storytellers and Advocates

  • "Now, more than ever, teachers need to share their compelling stories uninhibitedly to help restore the public’s perception of public schools. We need to support the teaching profession and inspire teachers to self-advocate. But teachers are scared — and rightfully so — to speak up in today’s educational environment.

    "How, then, can we more effectively use the TOY program to maximize the influence our teachers have? Together, school leaders can leverage TOY programs at the local and regional levels to create opportunities for reflection, recognition, collaboration, and leadership. The TOY program can serve as the vehicle for developing a network of exceptional TOY storytellers and advocates."