By Meredith Kokoski, NHCS Teacher of the Year
Editor’s Note: Last week, the New Hanover County Board of Education and Superintendent Dr. Tim Markley hosted the district’s annual Legislative Luncheon for local and state elected officials. One of the keynote speakers was NHCS Teacher of the Year Meredith Kokoski, an English teacher at Laney High School. The following is Ms. Kokoski’s speech, which brought a standing ovation from the audience. The Legislative Priorities that were reviewed by Superintendent Dr. Markley during the luncheon follow Ms. Kokoski’s speech.
I absolutely love my job. Teaching runs through my veins and I feel it is as innate to me as breathing. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I am saying I could never leave this love of mine because its place in my heart could never be filled by anything else. We never go into this profession for recognition or reward, which is a good thing because teaching is often the job of the unsung hero.
I was so fortunate to receive the title of New Hanover County’s teacher of the year in June. It came at a low point in my career: I had extremely difficult and unmotivated classes; I had just come back to work after my son, Ben, was born, and I had yet to see a raise in my six years of teaching. It was like someone above knew I needed to be reminded of my destiny as a teacher or education was going to lose another one.
I am grateful for the doors this award has opened for me and I am thankful to have been recognized for my dedication. However, I am one of 2,500 teachers in this county alone, so I don’t feel as though I represent the whole in this specific regard. All teachers deserve the reminder that they are valued, and most importantly that they are deemed capable of making sound decisions in their classrooms for their students. After all, they know their students best. However, I do represent the whole in that we all are in education for the same reason. We go into teaching because we recognize the need for the adults of today to positively impact the adults of tomorrow, and sharing our love of learning and our love for them is in so many ways its own reward. We go into it for the humanity of it all-the passion, the heart.
New Hanover County is comprised of strong, passionate leaders and educators who steadfastly work to reach our students and equip them with the skill sets they need to be productive, capable and happy citizens -after all, “Reach, Equip, Achieve” is our motto. Twenty years ago, in 1994, the World Wide Web was invented, cell phones came in suitcases for the car alone, there was no Google, we saved on Floppy Disks, and the DVD wouldn’t come out for another year. The mission of our county, in short is “to strive to provide children an excellent education in a safe and positive learning environment … for a world yet to be imagined.” This mission is a daunting one in that keeping my students safe keeps me up at night, but the scariest part of it is imagining the necessary skills one will need in twenty years. How can we adequately prepare them for our future world? What will it possibly look like in 2035?
Yet, we take this mission with pride and purpose every day because despite the issues we personally face as educators; it isn’t about us- at all. Education is about the students, the young minds at perpetual diverging paths with thousands of choices to make that can be the difference between a successful and happy life and a difficult and arduous one. It is our job to equip them to make these crucial decisions for themselves, by themselves and to live in the present but prepare for the future. I believe we are failing them in this regard and thus the “world yet to be imagined” is one that fills me with much trepidation.
As a district, NHCS has worked tirelessly toward our mission and has succeeded in a number of ways. Our county reached an 82.4% graduation rate last year; Laney High School reached 88%, 6% above the state level. Our schools lead the state in Grade Level proficiency and College Readiness Standards, and lead the region in multiple EOG’s and EOC’s, including English II and Math I. If numbers are indications of student success, we are meeting or exceeding the expectations for achievement and growth that have been put in place.
However, unlike the score reports for these exams that try to depict who our students are, it is hard for someone outside of it all to really tell how a school and its students are doing.
Having interned at Laney High School, I have stayed at Laney for seven years because I deeply respect my principal, and I believe in my fellow teachers and administrators. However, what I love most about my school are the students. I repeat, IT IS ALL ABOUT THEM.
I love the culture of my school, I love its diversity. Every day I witness deep personal friendships. I see inclusiveness. I see them look out for each other. I see them struggle. I see them fall, but get back up. I hear smart questions and intelligent statements. They are funny, and they are polite. They make me truly, deeply proud to be a teacher. Our students are the heart of our Buccaneer family, just as the students are the heart of every school in this county and beyond.
We have been inundated in the last few years with state tests, and every year despite the frustration and the worry that we are missing the point, we work so hard to help our students meet the requirements set forth by people who don’t know their stories, their battles, and their tribulations. Teachers are the bridge between many of you who want to see a collective whole succeed and the individual students who personally want to believe that their success is not measured by a number. We are the scaffolding that connects these two seemingly discrepant ideologies and makes them seem less incongruous.
When I broke the news to my seniors last year that they would have to take a state exam in English IV, they were devastated. They were confused. They were angry. Seniors in New Hanover County complete a rigorous semester-long Graduation Project on a contemporary issue of their choice. I had seniors start support groups, host dinners for the homeless, collect items for veterans. I had young men and women teach others about the importance of physical health and coastal environment protection, work with students with autism, foster and learn how to train service animals. I had young adults make care packages for the terminally ill, work weekly with the elderly, coach youth sports teams. “How, at the end of all of that,” they asked, ”was it a multiple-choice examination that would test their growth and what they had learned?
A test cannot possibly measure a student’s achievement in every subject, so I do not believe a North Carolina Final Exam is needed in every subject. Personal achievement and growth is just that-personal. It cannot be measured without taking into consideration the HUMANITY of education.
This issue becomes an even bigger problem when these same scores are used as what I believe is unfortunately becoming the sole basis of Teacher Effectiveness. North Carolina is one of 34 states that considers student growth when evaluating its teachers; however, we teachers do not feel that this is accurate. Our Summative Evaluations used to be a genuine dialogue between principal and teacher, but are now just an hour of clicking; how can accurate observation data even be obtained when the measurement tool is so impersonal?
If all we are doing is teaching to a test, we are not doing our job. I became a teacher because I had a teacher in high school who gave me a voice and taught me how to use that voice to make this world a better place. I became a teacher because I learned at a young age that what teachers do every day matters. Not the last day of the semester. Not the 120 minutes that a test lasts. Every day. When I polled my 115 juniors and seniors anonymously and I asked them, “On a scale of 1-10, how important is your relationship to your teacher to your success in a subject?” The average was 9. 75 of them said 10.
If we do not have passionate, positive teachers who love their students and want them to succeed as humans, not just for the EVAAS rating we receive from their test scores, what are we doing? I think we are losing our students not because teachers are giving up on them, but because public education is. Investing in teachers and giving them control over their classrooms creates the positive learning environment that New Hanover County Schools aims for in its mission.
The impact a teacher makes on a student is immeasurable. In spite of adversity, we teach with all of our hearts like our students’ lives depend on it-because they do. Our students’ futures are in our hands, and it is our responsibility to always construct education with this in mind. I am in this job indefinitely because it is in my blood. I do not intend on leaving the classroom as long as I feel I can prepare my 21st century learners to be conscientious adults who think for themselves and have the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a globally competitive society. I hope this remains possible in North Carolina.
“There isn’t a single person you wouldn’t love if you knew their story.” All children are who they are for a reason. Every child can learn, every child wants to learn and wants to be proud of his or her accomplishments; every student wants to be reached, to be equipped, to achieve. It is imperative, then, for teachers to keep teaching. We have to bring the love of learning and the desire to inspire back into our classrooms and schools. We have to make our students fall in love with learning again against all odds.
At the beginning of class on Monday, Evan, one of my juniors told me about a book he had read over the break. At the end of class, he stayed behind. “Did you ever just read a book just to read it? Not because there was something at the end to test your comprehension or whether or not you had read it, but just to appreciate the book for what it had to offer?”
Of course I laughed for a second- after all, I am an English teacher. “Yes, I have, once or twice.” He continued, “Did you ever come away from a book feeling like you were better off than you were before it, not because someone told you, you were, but because you were invested in it?” He paused. “I wish school was like that. I wish learning was like that. And I ask you, why can’t learning be just “like that?”