Monday’s Tony nominations and this weekend’s Billboard Awards may be all the buzz … but last night it was Connecticut teachers who took center stage.
In a much-anticipated and long overdue ceremony at The Bushnell, the Connecticut Teacher of the Year (CCTOY) Council was finally able to present its awards to hundreds of 2021 and 2022 Connecticut District Teachers of the Year as well as offer special recognition to semifinalists, finalists, and state-level honorees.
In his welcoming remarks, master of ceremonies and 2013 Teacher of the Year Blaise Messinger mentioned a critically acclaimed box office hit he’d recently seen—Everything Everywhere All At Once—which, he quipped, “is a good way to describe teaching over these past two years.”
Recalling the many switches between asynchronous and synchronous remote, hybrid, and dual instruction, with a final return to in-person learning, he said, “No matter what obstacles were thrown at us, we did not give up, we did not back down, and we did our darndest to make it work, because that’s what we do. Education, as a profession, is—at its core—about doing whatever it takes to change lives for the better, about making the world a safer, more equitable place.”
To that end, he added, teachers are “the real guardians of the galaxy.”
“We strive to uplift our profession by celebrating, honoring, and supporting excellence in teaching,” said CCTOY Council President and 2012 Teacher of the Year David Bosso. “We are keenly aware of the incredible efforts teachers put forth each day, and our dedication and passion have been especially apparent in the midst of the challenges of the past few years. As part of the Council’s mission, we believe it is important to publicly recognize the many amazing educators who make such a long-lasting impact on the lives of thousands of students.”
CEA President Kate Dias and Vice President Joslyn DeLancey, who attended the ceremony, expressed their gratitude to the Council for recognizing the difficult and important work that teachers do, and to the educators who serve as exemplars and ambassadors for their profession.
“Everyone in this room understands the rewards, as well as the many challenges, that come with this work,” said Dias. “We’re here to acknowledge the tens of thousands of educators who take up those challenges and, together with their students, reap those rewards every day—and those who have been selected to represent the very best of our profession on this special evening.”
Governor Ned Lamont and Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker were also on hand to offer their praise and congratulations.
“Looking at other states in the country, some of them have oil or gas; some have platinum; we have the best teachers in the world,” the governor said. “What makes teachers amazing is that they liberate our imaginations. They help young people think about life in a different way. At the end of the day, each of you is inspiring a child.”
“It is no secret, as the governor said, that Connecticut is home to some of the best and brightest educators you can find anywhere in the country—and yes, anywhere in the world,” Russell-Tucker remarked. “You dedicate your lives to supporting, nurturing, and educating our state’s most valuable resource: our students. And, as the best educators are also lifelong learners, you commit to the perpetual honing of your craft. You do all of this with the intent of being the best you can be so that our students are the best they can be.”
A word from the winners
“What a life-changing experience this has been,” 2021 Connecticut Teacher of the Year Rochelle Brown began her acceptance speech. “I must say, however, as I stand here on this stage, I am representing not only myself but also many of my colleagues and friends. I stand here not solely by the merit of my work and actions but by the work and inspiration of many.”
Underscoring the power of fellowship, trust, and relationships teachers have with their students and colleagues, Brown encouraged educators to focus on “purpose, passion, and potential as we celebrate our great and noble profession.”
Calling educators some of the most passionate people she knows, the Windsor elementary school teacher said, “Teaching is a work of the heart. I know with certainty that many of us in this room have stayed awake at night worrying about a child. There are those of us who have tirelessly consulted with others in search of answers to a dilemma that affected a student or their family. We have devoted countless hours to our profession, sometimes to the disappointment of our own families, friends, and loved ones. We have entered into a profession where we can actually see the fruits of our labor, the outcome of our daily work that’s living and breathing before us, full of emotions, hopes, and dreams. We see children’s struggles, just as we see their triumphs. We share in both their joys and their pain.”
She added, “Everyone’s story includes a teacher. More often than not, if you ask somebody about their educational experiences, they will fondly remember a teacher who shaped how they feel about themselves.”
Brown often considers how her presence in the classroom allows children of color to see themselves reflected in their teacher.
“I think back to my very first day of teaching, on that warm, late summer morning in 1999 when my 23-year-old self sat in my car, near tears, wondering if I had made the right career choice. Upon entering my classroom, a very excited eight-year-old embraced me and exclaimed, ‘You’re my teacher? I’ve been waiting for you my entire life!’ In that moment I realized that I was not simply a teacher; I was the embodiment of possibility in that child’s life. We have the great gift and privilege of being an integral part of someone else’s story.”
Works of the heart
Closing out the ceremony, 2022 Connecticut Teacher of the Year Kim King shared her own experience as a part of a student’s story, in an emotional recollection that brought down the house.
Recently, a former student reached out and said that King had changed the trajectory of the student’s life.
“I asked myself, ‘What did I do?’ I couldn’t think of any grand gesture that deserved this compliment.”
She remembered the student as a cool, confident kid who ate lunch in King’s art room and talked with her about music, art, and life beyond their small town. What she didn’t fully understand was the upheaval in the child’s personal life and how the student felt confused, afraid, unhappy, and unsafe at home.
“You never stopped showing up for me,” the former student wrote to King. “You gave me hope for a better life when I didn’t think it was possible. You always made me feel worthy, and that what I had to say mattered. I’m transmasc nonbinary. Trans youth have the highest suicide rates. You helped to keep me alive.”
Through tears, King told her fellow teachers, “You’ve received this honor during some of the most difficult days of your career. You are being honored not because of any single, big moment but a beautiful mosaic of thousands and thousands of small moments—and it is that shining legacy that has brought you here tonight. Those small moments are what students remember long after the day’s lessons have faded. What remains cannot be measured, because how can you measure dignity and empowerment? It’s the small things. It’s the connections we make that can change the trajectory of a life. So keep creating safe spaces for your students. Help them to imagine the possibilities.”
She added, “Right now, there are forces that want to limit the rights of our students, and systems in place that are inequitable. Congresswoman and 2016 Connecticut and National Teacher of the Year once said, ‘We must ask ourselves, Whose children are they? There should only be one answer: They are ours.’ They are all our children, and we must advocate for all of them. We know them by name, we know them by need, and we know them by strength. Sometimes it feels like it’s just you and your student swaying on a scaffolding. All they need you to do is reach out and hold their hand so that they don’t feel alone. That is the power of a teacher.”