May 06, 2018

MCSD Teacher of the Year 2018: How Losing Big Created One Big Win for This Author

Success is a series of flamboyant failures. It's a list of almost wins and big losses, even public losses. Thursday, I took a very public and very big loss by failing to win big as Muscogee County School District's (MCSD) Teacher of the Year. Not only would I have won a lasting title as a Top Teacher, but I would have been entered into the running for the State Competition, and I would have took home a plaque and cash prize of 5,000 dollars. A prize to which my family was looking forward. I worked hard for the title from showcasing my best lessons to staying up late working on speeches, to analyzing every compliment as a sign to a possible winning clue, to buying a winning outfit for the special night. I remember thinking that May 3rd couldn't come soon enough, and suddenly feeling the dread of doubt. What if my name wasn't called? However, I convinced myself that I was a winner, I had a winning persona, and of course, I could do no less than win that night. So, as sat in the audience holding my daughters hand, clutching my winning speech, and silently praying in anticipation, my feet steadily shivering in excitement, you can imagine my shock when my name wasn't called.  I remember seeing in slow motion the simultaneous shock of those around me as their eyes and mouths dropped in disbelief. To them, I was the clear winner, but for the county, I just wasn't number 1. I remember unraveling my prepared speech full of thanks and poignant quotes, and tucking it into my purse to never see the light of day. I failed, or at least that is what it looked like on the outside.

"Success is a series of flamboyant failures"
However, in this moment, I thought about the entire year. I thought about the fact that I was a Top 3
Teacher of the Year, and all the letters that littered my classroom from my students, their parents,  Mayor Tomlinson, Cathy Williams, school board members, former principals, former MCSD's past Teachers of The Year like Stefan Lawrence and Sheryl Green, and even my old professors from Columbus State University. I thought about the love of my family, and the newspaper pictures that lined my favorite aunt's refrigerator. I thought about the words of my aunt as she reached over and hugged me "Your mother would have been so proud," and my brother's words, "You are my teacher of the year" and the words of my students, "We love you Ms. Jacobs, win or lose." I thought about all the support I received from the community-- from text messages and letters to phone calls and emails. Despite, what it looked like on the outside-- I was still a winner. I had won the heart of the community-- of my hometown, and that was the most important prize of all. The girl who was a high school drop out, who was the daughter of the "crazy mother," who people had said would never be great or be special-- had for a moment been the spotlight of the entire town. I had become a Top Teacher and had the love of my community. People were celebrating my successes with me, were rooting for me, and felt the sting of my loss just as heavy if not more so. When I thought about the journey I had walked, the mile I had run, and the joy I had created-- I realized I was still a very big winner. In fact, I was probably the biggest winner--because no one expected a woman like me to get so far.

"'We love you Ms. Jacobs, win or lose!'"

I think back to the girl I was at 17 years old, and I want to hug her; I want to wipe her tears like her favorite English teacher did so long ago, and reiterate that "Everything will be all right. That everything will work out just fine. Have faith," because in that moment, I realized that my life had worked out just fine. I have a profession that I love that loves me in return, I have a burgeoning career as an author, I have a family that I kept together despite the obstacles, and I have hope for the future. At 36, nearly 19 years after that school phone call that sent me on a downward path of despair, I was finally living the life I planned for myself-- a life of success. I won big that night, not because I took home a plaque or another title or a grand cash prize, but because I exceeded the statistics. I have accomplished more than anyone ever thought I could.

I won big that night, not because I took home a plaque or another title, but because I exceeded the statistics.
The next day, my Principal allowed me to read my acceptance speech to the whole school, and it moved some to tears, and my students applauded. I was faced with a sea of black and brown and
beige bodies overwhelming me with hugs and love and hope. I knew that teaching was my calling, that I was where I was meant to be, and I was excited for my next adventure. As I said in my winning speech, which is below, "a good education can change everyone, but a good teacher changes everything." Each day, I give a good education that creates future learners, but I was also a great teacher-- and I was changing everything for my students-- I was changing lives: being a Top 3 Teacher of the Year taught me that. So, I am forever proud of this moment, of who I am, and wherever I end up next. I know the next phase for me will be even bigger. Thank you Muscogee Educational Excellence Foundation (MEEF) for giving me the opportunity and showing how much I really mattered.

I knew that teaching was my calling, that I was where I was meant to be, and I was excited for my next adventure.
TOTY Winning Speech

Good Teachers Change Everything

First, I would like to thank MEEF (Muscogee Educational Excellence Foundation) for this opportunity. I want to thank the members of the school board, the superintendent David Lewis and my coworkers. Thank you, Ms. Toelle, for being my first Mentor at Early College Academy and for allowing me to practice my speech in your classroom. Thank you to Ms. Robinson and Mr. Larkin for putting up with the figurative language song and all the desk banging, rapping, and debating that makes my classroom stand out, thank you Dr. Forte for teaching me how to be confident, thank you to Ms. Everett, Ms. Jones, and Ms. Hernandez for always being encouraging. Thank you, Mr. Brock, for always being so positive. Thank you to my students of ECAC—because as I told them—a teacher is only as good as their weakest student. I could not be a good teacher without great students, and I may be biased but I honestly believe that ECAC has some of the best students in Columbus, Ga. Thank you to Ms. Douglas and Ms. Alexander from Baker Middle School who both told me that if I keep going and creating creative lessons, one day I could be Teacher of the year—who would have known how right they were. 

I would also like to thank my family and friends. I would like to thank my cousins Latosha Rogers, Kenny Earl, Trina King, Terry King and Lyndell King as well as my children and brothers Lakeisha Jacobs, Joshua Jacobs, David Jacobs, and Jason Jacobs, my aunt Audrey Parkman, and my friends Delincia Hart and Scott Hart. Thank you holding me up when I felt like falling and giving my strength when I was weak. Thank you for all the support through the years. Also, I want to thank my mother without her I wouldn’t be who I am, where I am, and with the strength I have. My mother is my best friend, my biggest fan, often times my biggest critic and my most complicated relationship, but she is also my first teacher.

In fact, my mother could be considered a Tiger Mom. I am not sure if you heard of that before but a tiger mom is a mom that is highly critical. She demands the best at all times and forces their children to strive for the highest achievement. I remember, I would bring her my school work growing up, and she would tell me it was wrong. She would erase every answer and make me rewrite it over in complete sentences. She never used Baby Talk—often using vocab words like idiosyncrasies and forcing me to look the word up in the dictionary if I didn’t understand it, and I would read the newspaper to her at 8 while she drove. If I made a mistake, I would always tell her “But Mom, I did my best!” Her response was always the same: Well, your best wasn't good enough. These words have haunted me my entire life.  They were both motivating and hurtful.

 After washing the dishes, after cleaning my room, after doing my homework, after writing an essay—my mother’s response was always the same “Well, your best wasn’t good enough.” Eventually, I stopped hearing your best—all I heard was “not good enough” and that meant that I wasn’t good enough. So, no matter what I did, or how high my grade or what I achieved—I always felt as though I was not good enough. Until this moment, until I became teacher of the year. When the teachers got together to make me teacher of the year, for the first time a group of people said “Ms. Jacobs, you are good enough.” When I became the Top Ten—thanks to the school board and MEEF— all I heard was “Ms. Jacobs you are good enough.” When I learned I was in the Top Three—the Superintendent fist bumped me and reminded me that “I was good enough,” and as I stand here on this stage I know that not only am I good enough—I am great. I am a great teacher surrounded by great teachers. This is a moment I have wanted my entire life—to feel “good enough.”

But, I am not alone. This is a reality for many of our students. Many of our students grow up feeling not good enough, and it is our job as educators to change that. It’s our job to make sure they are good enough to pass the class, they are good enough to walk along the stage for graduation, they are good enough to get into a college or trade program, they are good enough to write the essay to get the scholarship—and definitely good enough to create the resume to get the job.  And if we have students that walk into our class that lack the skills to be called good enough, it’s our job to give them the skills to make them good enough. It’s our job to teach students like me—students who are considered “high risk” and to hopefully change lives. And, “high risk” students are everywhere. These students are in every neighborhood, in every school and across socioeconomics and cultural groups. In fact, I would bet that many of us in this room were once one of these students.
In fact, let’s do a social experiment. If you feel comfortable, you may stand if you match one of these descriptions. Stand if you were student from single parent home, stand if you were a student with a poorly educated mother, student from home with alcoholism, stand if you were a student from substance abuse, stand if you were a student from foster care or adopted. Stand if you experienced  any form of abuse, including emotional, physical or mental, if you are from a family that has had any type of criminal involvement and stand if you have experienced poverty, stand if you grew up in a large city or stand if you grew up in a rural area —these are all considered high-risk indicators that are associated with “low test scores” and “a greater likelihood of dropping out,” but I can bet that each of you can think of one teacher that impacted your life and made a difference. A teacher that made sure you were good enough to pass, and graduate, and get the job.  In fact, I bet that teacher is who made you want to become a teacher.

Well, our students are just like you. These students are just like me, and it’s going to take all of us—parents, teachers, business leaders, -- the community—a village to make sure that our children, our students, feel the same why I feel right now. They don’t just need to feel good enough, but they need to be good enough—in fact the need to be great. Our students are our greatest investment and our most precious asset, and as a community it’s our job to sustain them. If you don’t remember anything else, remember this: “a good education can change anyone, but a good teacher can change everything.” 

Dawnell Jacobs is the author of The Shade of Devotion, Brains Not Included, Black Magic, and The Monsters of Within: Heart of Darkness. She has also published a self-help book Your Story Matters: Leaning How To Be The Author of Your Destiny. You can find all of her books on Amazon, Kindle, Nook, and Barnes And Noble. She is also a motivational speaker to young audiences. She uses her personal journey to inspire hope and change. All pictures and entries in this blog are subject to copyright laws. ©Dawnell Jacobs 2017 

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