State Teachers of the Year line the field at halftime during the college football championship game in Tampa on Jan. 9, 2017. (Photo by Matthew Sinclair)

Ashley Lamb-Sinclair is  the 2016 Kentucky Teacher of the Year. Lamb-Sinclair teaches high school English and creative writing, and authors the www.beautifuljunkyard.com website.  During the 2015-16 school year, she took a sabbatical and worked with the Kentucky Department of Education.  Lamb-Sinclair is also the founder and chief executive officer of Curio Learning, an educational technology company launching a platform for teacher professional development.  And she has written several posts for this blog, including this one, titled, “Why white students need black teachers — by a white teacher.

In this new piece, Lamb-Sinclair writes about the experience she and other Teachers of the Years had when they were honored at the College Football Playoffs National Championship game in Tampa earlier in January, and why teachers are too often misunderstood by the public.  At a time when teachers have been unfairly blamed for poor student performance by federal and state officials, the piece has special resonance. (Her Twitter handle: @AshleyLambS)

By Ashley Lamb-Sinclair

My husband and I were taking an Uber recently while in Tampa, Florida, and we engaged the driver in obligatory small talk. My husband told the driver that we were there for the College Football Playoffs National Championship game because as Kentucky Teacher of the Year, along with the other state teachers of the year, I had been invited by The College Football Foundation and the Council of Chief State School Officers to represent the teachers across the nation by standing and being recognized on the 50-yard line at halftime.

He seemed impressed, going so far as to announce my presence to the attendants as he pulled up to the hotel to drop us off, but added so automatically that it made me stiffen in my seat, “Well, how do we get the other teachers to be like you then, huh? Because, well, most of ‘em are just terrible.”

I gave an awkward laugh, we thanked him, and got out of the car. But as I prepared for events that evening, I couldn’t shake his words. The truth is that I am one of the lucky ones. The hours of planning and grading, the almost anxiety-producing passion for my work, and the years of standing in front of young people to help them grow into productive adults led me to stand on the fifty yard line at the College Football Playoffs National Championship game and wave to a cheering crowd as a representative of the work that many teachers do.

But what the Uber driver didn’t know, what the fans in the stadium and watching on television didn’t know, and what, sadly, many Americans don’t know, is that the work of a teacher is really, really hard and does not come down to the sound bites one often hears about what works and what doesn’t in public schools.

The narrative that public schools are failing, teachers are widely ineffective, and that politicians and business people are the ones to “fix” all of these problems can sound more compelling than the truth. And the image of what makes a great teacher can be so narrow for the average person, that many of those fans may not have even known the realities each of us faced that led us to that moment on the field. So here is the truth: America saw 50 or so excellent teachers standing on the field at halftime, but what happened behind the scenes is just as powerful.

Teachers never stop teaching and advocating.

At 10 a.m. on a Monday morning, the hotel bar was already populating with sports fans wearing crimson and orange, depending on their team. But in the middle, circled up, were 30 or so state teachers of the year meeting to outline plans for developing an organization to protect public schools and its students. In December, we pulled together to create a video campaign with the help of Roman Lane Productions and Curio Learning (an education technology startup I co-founded) and planted the seeds for an organization called Protect Public Ed. While others spent the morning preparing to tailgate, we spent ours planning call campaigns to senators, determining a timeline for upcoming initiatives, and coordinating our various state efforts in order to support each other’s work. We have no budget, no agendas, and no organizations to whom we are required to report. We met together, then shared our story with a local reporter until the final minutes of boarding the bus to the stadium, and messaged each other all evening and into the next day about how to further our work.

We are not unique in this effort. In my own state of Kentucky, my colleagues Tiffany Gruen, Brison Harvey, and Kari Patrick work tirelessly without additional pay to manage a website (www.kyedpolicy.org) and coordinate efforts in our state for teachers and legislators to work together on education policy. And then they go into the classroom and do amazing work with students. I could name example after example of teachers just like them; teachers who advocate for students inside and outside school walls, all the time.

Teachers never stop giving to students.

As we entered the stadium, the attendants handed each person a gift card. It only took a few minutes for word to spread among our group that the gift card was to Donors Choose, a nonprofit that helps teachers get materials they need for their classroom. Considering the level of budget cuts to education occurring in many states, the impoverished students that many teachers teach and love, and the fact that the average teacher spends $500 to $1,000 per year of personal money on school supplies, we were thrilled to discover that the College Football Foundation was investing in classrooms and giving sports fans the opportunity to give to local teachers and students.

Then we realized that some people were throwing them away. We found them on the ground and in trash cans. So when the stadium cheered for us on the field, they had no idea that many of us had been literally digging in the trash during the first half in order to find ways to help our students. Most teachers appreciate the recognition of a job well done when we get it from students, parents, and citizens.

But what also matters is recognizing how each individual can improve the well being of students and teachers within local schools. Giving on Donors Choose is a place to start. Another is paying attention when education funding is cut by local, state, and national governments. No professional adult should be digging in a trash can to do his or her job well. And no child should go without proper resources for learning and thriving either.

Teachers band together to do what is best for each other and kids.

When we left the field, we huddled around the lovable and kind New Mexico Teacher of the Year, David Morales, who spoke to us about the work we had done over the course of our year together and the work that we will continue to do going forward. There was not a dry eye among us, and not because we were sad to walk off the field and lose the title or the recognition. We were crying because we had built something together. We had shared in each other’s work.

Teaching can often feel isolating, so for teachers from across the United States to come together and share experiences, combine forces, and collaborate was truly powerful. We have sat together in rooms at the White House to discuss education policy. We have shared stories of our students and helped each other figure out ways to best help them. And we have stood together in recognition as a powerful force of change agents.

What our Uber driver didn’t understand is that we are not the only ones. We are not unique in our excellence. There are teachers in public schools in every state giving their best to students and advocating for our profession. It felt energizing to stand on the field and be recognized not for myself, but for every one of those powerful teachers in classrooms who weren’t there.

And it felt even better to walk off that field, huddle up with my friends, and figure out our next play.