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Reflections of an Itinerant Learner

I finished my official duties as the National Teacher of the Year last week. I ended my journey at the starting point, my classroom, and I could think of no better place to end a pilgrimage of learning.

"What's up?" a student asked.

I turned around and saw the face of an errant young man. He too has been away for a while, but he undertook a far different journey. He has just returned from prison after serving a 10-month sentence for a history of assault. I wrote about Kaz last December when I visited him at Connecticut's Manson Correctional Facility and wondered if he would discover redemption or perdition behind prison walls.

"The school seems strange," Kaz said.

"What do you mean by strange?" I asked.

Kaz smiles whenever I ask him to elaborate on a thought or comment. "You know...strange like it's different here."

One of the tender mercies every good teacher learns is how not to play psychotherapist and answer every question with another question. I understood what he meant. Returning to a familiar place after being away for a year makes the scenery appear both old and new.

"How do you feel?" Kaz asked.

How do I feel? Good question. I had spent the past 12 months holding a suitcase and carrying a title that should come with a disclaimer. The National Teacher of the Year is a moniker that cannot belong to any single educator because our nation is filled with so many gifted but unsung teachers. Educators who quickly made me feel like an amateur as I watched them teach. But the title is a treasured key that unlocked doors not opened to most teachers. Doors that led to rooms filled with politicians, bureaucrats, policy makers, union leaders and academics. These are the movers and shakers who direct the course of our education system. I'm not sure if they listened to what I had to say, but I tried my best to be heard.

I looked at Kaz and told him that I feel just fine; it's good to be home.

"What did you learn?" he asked.

Wow. I learned that the Race to the Top will be an arduous task for many states because they entered the race late and way behind the starting line. I learned that our young people should not be judged too harshly because they are trying to build a better future. I learned that pundits and talking heads are too often detached from what is happening inside classrooms. And I learned that politicians need not worry that the American system of public education is falling behind the rest of the world.

It will take months, possibly years, for me to fully digest and appreciate all that I have learned during my travels as National Teacher of the Year. But despite all the differences of opinions and myriad solutions proposed to improve education, I did learn that every parent, teacher, politician, policy maker, academic, and bureaucrat share a common goal to do what is best for our children. And in the end, that is what really matters.

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