Just a Teacher

My goal in this post is not to brag about all the wonderful people I met at NCTE, but in order for me to get my point across I will need to discuss the awesomeness that was my experience. Sorry for all the name dropping.
I spent last weekend surrounded by people that I admire. Somehow, I was lucky enough to spend time with some of my favorite authors, teachers, librarians, and illustrators. Through various sessions, meals, walks, and Christmas tree lightings (I watched the Palmer House Christmas tree get lit with John Schu and Jen Vincent) I learned more than I could have ever imagined about both myself and teaching.

Me and Jen at the Candlewick booth

Being surrounded by all these amazing people, I found myself feeling like I didn’t belong. When I would get introduced to someone, I kept saying, “I’m just a teacher.” Being introduced to Linda Urban, Candace Flemming, Kirby Larson, and Jennifer Holm was nerve racking. I wouldn’t be surprised if any one of those authors wins at least a Newbery honor this year. What are they doing shaking my hand and giving me hugs? I’m just a teacher. Donalyn Miller, who I think of as one of the best teacher on the planet actually wants to hang out with me. I don’t get it. I’m just a teacher.

When Jennifer Holm saw me wearing my Babymouse t-shirt she actually smiled, jumped out of her seat, and ran up and hugged me. Why is she hugging me? I’m just a teacher.

One of my heros, Kate Messner, introduced me to Linda Urban. Linda actually knew who I was. She isn’t even on Twitter. This totally blew my mind. We chatted a bit, and the whole time all I could think was: I’m just a teacher. Why does she know who I am?

My self doubting built to its climax at the Random House Author Dinner Saturday night. Jennifer Holm got me invited and I was nervous. I kept emailing her and asking her what I should wear (I’m not the type of guy that usually worries about what he wears). Once I got to the restaurant I walked around for about 10 minutes looking for Jenni. I kept getting more and more nervous. Why I am here? Why did Jenni invite me? This doesn’t feel right. I’m just a teacher. Finally, I asked a man at the door about the Random House Dinner, and he quickly ushered me to where I needed to be.

Before dinner started, I saw Candace Fleming standing and talking on the other side of the room. I quickly positioned myself in the opposite corner. A wonderful Random House person seemed to sense my nerves. She came over and chatted with me. She saw me keep peaking over at Candace. She asked me if I would like to be introduced to Candace. That was the easiest question anyone asked me all weekend. “Absolutely not,” shot out of my mouth. She smiled and walked over to Candace. Crap, I knew where this was going. The next thing I knew, Candace was walking over towards me. Okay, so now I am the most nervous wreck I have ever been in my life. Candace Fleming is heading my way. The lovely Random House people introduced us. We shook hands, I am completely awkward, and I manage to get in a couple “I’m just a teacher” comments. Thankfully, we are asked to take our seats for dinner, before I can do any more damage.

During dinner I’m talking with Jennifer Holm, Kirby Larson, and college professor/former member of the Newbery committee, Nancy Johnson. I was actually starting to feel pretty good. Jenni and Kirby are two of the most lovely people in the world. They made me actually start to settle down a bit, but then it came out, “I’m just a teacher.”

It doesn't matter that this picture is blurry. I'm with Kirby Larson and Jennifer Holm!

Then all heck broke loose. Nancy Johnson jumped all over me. “I don’t ever want to hear you say that again. You are not “just a teacher”. You are someone that truly cares about kids and books!” she said to me almost shouting. My mouth fell to the floor. She continued, “You are part of the most important profession on the planet. You need to respect yourself, and start to understand that what you do is awesome (okay, awesome is my word, but she said something like that)!” Holy crap. It was intense.

My world was rocked. She was right. I am not “just a teacher”. “I am a teacher” and that is a lot different than being “just a teacher”. We live in a world today where politicians, community members, and the media often look at us a second class citizens. They want to take our jobs, our benefits, our pay, and our respect. It is so important that we don’t see ourselves as just teachers. We need to see ourselves as part of the most important profession on the planet. Our profession includes some of the best thinkers, hardest workers, and most caring individuals in the world. I am proud to be, a teacher.

A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove . . . . but the world maybe different because I was important in the life of a child.
– Kathy Davis

19 Comments
  1. Ok, Colby, first of all you made me tear up here. Beautifully written. Second, I’m glad you realize that you are not “just a teacher.” First, all teachers are amazing. But second, you are an amazing teacher, of this I am certain. And you are also a wonderful person. Please realize that many of us were excited to meet you too!

    I love teaching, in a time it is difficult to love it. I love when the kids “get it”, that I can make a difference in their lives. I’m so thrilled for you that you got to meet all of those people and take back that experience to your students. That much have been amazing!
    Katherine

  2. Colby, we are kindred spirits. For me the phrase was, “I’m just a sales rep.” Many times I’ve been horribly insecure in similar situations. I remember my first publisher sales conference #* years ago like it was yesterday. I was nearly paralyzed with fear, but somehow I got through it. Mostly because the president, the editors, fellow sales reps, and everyone else were warm and welcoming. We were there to talk about books, and I was astonished to find myself in the midst of such wonderful company.

    The beauty of social media is that we are allowed to forge friendships, share enthusiasms, and otherwise benefit from the way traditional walls are shattered. It gives us an opportunity to glean so much insight into how we are all meant to be the supportive network for each other.

    I’m so glad I’ve “met” you through Twitter. Your feedback on the books you love helps give me strength to convey that enthusiasm to my booksellers. Knowing that there is such a wide network of wonderful teachers out there fighting the good fight for reading, writing, books and learning inspires me every day. Thank you.

  3. This was an excellent post. All teachers in our culture are sadly undervalued, but you in particular — what you do for your kids is inspiring, truly special, and absolutely worth being proud of. You’re the kind of teacher that my own brother strives to be; the kind I wish I’d had more of growing up. Good on Ms Johnson for saying the truth, and good on you for letting it sink in. :)

  4. Well, I teared up a bit too, old sap that I am. I was an ESL teacher in Japan for a number of years, and know that teaching is one of the most difficult and yet fulfilling jobs that there is. Good for Nancy Johnson for reframing your sentence and your self-image for you. My hat goes off to every teacher in America, in a profession that is so often under fire. You do make a difference in a child’s life.

    Colby, I’m glad I’ve “met” you on Twitter too. Your fierce love for reading and books is inspiring to me, and I’m sure it makes a huge impression on your lucky students.

  5. Colby – I felt privileged to get to meet you. You are an amazing person and a passionate, wonderful teacher. Never forget that. And I was just as thrilled & awed to get hugs from Jenni Holm, Kate Messner, and Linda Urban as you were. I don’t think I will ever get over the thrill of finding out that one of my literary heroes knows who I am. Thanks for sharing this post and thanks for being one of my “rock stars”.

  6. What a powerful post! Made me tear up! I think this way all the time when I am with my husband and am asked “what do you do.” I know that I am a wonderful teacher and change lives but I feel other people thinking “oh, you’re just a teacher” when I tell them. I smile and let them think their silly little thoughts and silently pat myself on the back for the life-changing work that I do every day! Carry on! :)

  7. Maybe, “I’m not just any teacher,” would be more fitting. I’ve enjoyed

    I can’t believe you sat with Nancy Johnson! I was lucky enough to have her as a professor at Western Washington University. She is absolutely a sort of mentor in my life (and many other teachers’) and I’ve missed talking to her as often while she’s been in Singapore. I have no problem imagining her “jumping all over you;” she has a very direct approach and is very vocal about her passions.

    It’s really hard for me to read all these tweets about all the inspirational fun everyone has at these conferences. I’ll be vicarious, I guess. I’m glad to know you, virtually. Someday, maybe I’ll manage to come along for the ride.

    Keep up the good work. I’m sure you inspire many more than you know.

    • Hmm…Looks like I either lost my train of thought or switched trains in the first paragraph.

      I’ve enjoyed… getting to know you a bit through your tweets, and am often inspired by the amazing things you do.

      Keep it up, Colby.

  8. Great post! I enjoyed how you created that sense of uneasiness . . . “I’m just a teacher.” I could easily see myself falling into the trap of just being a teacher among so many greats! So glad that you kinda got smacked up side the head and realize the truth that you are a great teacher!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and name dropping is okay in certain situations. This was one of them. :)

  9. Great reflection, Colby! I love it. That’s how I felt last weekend, too. It was so empowering to be among people doing such great work in our field and in children’s literature. I think what I realized most is that we’re all in it together. Authors are writing books, publishers are publishing books, we’re reading and spreading the word to our students and colleagues about books. We’re all important. It also helped me realize that, while authors are amazing at what they do, they are real people, too. I love to write and I love writing for my blog but I realized that if I wanted to I could write a book myself – why not? Authors are real people. I’m excited to share that with my students. Students need to realize that they truly can be authors, too.

  10. Colby, this is fantastic! I felt much the same way at the Little, Brown dinner I was invited too. All of these people were fabulous and there I was- a high school teacher. Thankfully, everyone was kind and once we started talking about books, I was set.

    And I am so glad I was able to meet YOU! :)

    sarah

  11. Colby,
    What an inspiring post! I have a friend who has been adamant about this point. If asked what she does, she always replies, “I am an educator.”. In times where education is under constant fire we need to advocate for the significance of what we do. Thanks for the great reminder.

    Carhy

  12. Awesome post. You nailed it.
    We’re not just teachers. We’re writers, readers, salesmen, magicians, and mentors (among other titles) all rolled into one.
    But it IS something to be able to meet, talk to – and even better! – be remembered by the same people we see as the rock stars of the education and writing world.
    I was so glad to see you, talk to you, and see you with a huge smile every time I ran into you. You were on my list of rock stars to see there, you know. :)

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