An open letter written by Maine’s 2019 Teacher of the Year Joe Hennessey.
To my fellow colleagues, educators of all levels, and community members throughout the state:
What follows is an open letter to you which originates from a place of profound gratitude. It has been my sincere pleasure and honor to represent our profession and its schools as the 2019 Maine Teacher of the Year, and I hope that I have fulfilled that charge acceptably. Eighteen months ago, my principal nominated me for a recognition which many of our colleagues would have been unable to accept for any number of reasons or would have refused upon philosophical grounds. I think we can all agree that there is no single best teacher in our state, and unequivocally, I am only one piece of a larger whole in Guilford; no person works in a vacuum, and I find myself having been named Teacher of the Year precisely because the students, parents, community members, and staff members where I work put me in a position to succeed. Time and again, they have permitted me to broaden my intellectual horizons and to augment my pedagogy by taking risks, iterating, and refining. They have shown me great trust and support throughout my year of recognition, and I am not able to repay their kindness other than to offer my deepest thanks.
Despite my initial inner conflict, and throughout my personal doubts, I have sought to serve as an ambassador of public education in Maine on behalf of my students, their sending communities, my school, and various invested parties. I have endeavored to gather, to highlight, and to learn beyond the opportunities afforded to most of my colleagues, and my immediate task is to share these salient pieces with others. As I transition back into a regular classroom routine, I have thought about how to articulate these truths in a coherent manner to others. For the time being, I have grouped my thoughts into these three tasks from the outset of my year: What I have gathered, what I have highlighted, and I what I have learned.
The resources which I have been able to gather on behalf of myself and others over my year are numerous and profound. On one front, my professional network has been expanded with 55 cohort colleagues, who are diverse and capable beyond my ability to express. On another front, I have also become aware of new paradigms, teacher/community leadership opportunities, centers for teaching excellence, and partners in education. It appears that we are all working in concert, whether we are aware of one another or not. The crux, to me, is how to harness these different pieces together so that we may all benefit from one another’s strengths, across grade levels and state lines. Perhaps a comprehensive, well-indexed database of resources? A dedicated center for teaching excellence in the geographic center of our state? New fellowships and networking opportunities for teachers? I do not know, but I am optimistic that some assortment of the above could be realized if we decide we want it.
In my written and spoken work, I have striven to highlight the challenges and assets of rural education in our state. I have written honestly about our challenges with chronic absenteeism, low literacy/functional illiteracy, progressive mental health education, and spare mental health infrastructure because I know how hard every school district is working to meet the needs of its students. I have also written and spoken about the wonderful additions to intellectual life Maine’s rural areas are making through interdisciplinary classes, project-based learning, multiple pathways via differentiation, and the essential time and space to think and grow which Maine’s rural students are afforded. Schools in the countryside are adaptable, responsive, and committed to being community centers– a notion that other portions of our country are not fortunate enough to possess at present. I remain convinced that rural schools are good places to be in the state of Maine, and that they themselves will be the determining factor in what the essential public service of the future will look like.
My reading, writing, speaking, and listening has taken me all over the world in the last twelve months. From California, to Washington, D.C., to Virginia, to New York, to Alabama, to Louisiana, and throughout our own state, I have seen what public education has to offer American society. In Germany and Switzerland, I have further observed the capacity and enthusiasm of young people from entirely disparate walks of life. And, what I have found in all of these places is an interconnected, interdependent, curious, compassionate, and ultimately fallible world. It is up to us to think critically, articulate ourselves well, and help students to learn to do the same, regardless of whether we agree with their eventual conclusions. In contemporary life as in the past, we are better as individuals and groups for having been exposed to diverse viewpoints. And, I will, in kind, treasure this travel for the rest of my life and incorporate those experiences back into my classroom through planned lessons, impromptu discussions, and further extrapolation which I cannot anticipate as of now.
More than anything, though, my time as the 2019 Maine Teacher of the Year has been affirming, and my mantra that we are all “thinking people” has been further impressed upon me. In Maine and beyond, we are all capable of great intellect and great thought, and our academic and technical education programs ought to reflect that premise. Education– formal and informal, primary or secondary or post-secondary– remains the path to self-betterment and community-betterment. And, in a time of social and political division, technological acceleration, and possibly increased alienation and distraction, it has been made clearer to me that we need all of Maine’s society to achieve what it is capable of achieving. Our collective progress depends upon the essential public service– public education– and we need to frame our discussions moving forward around that fact.
Learning from colleagues and organizations from coast to coast and continent to continent, it is more evident to me than before that our education system is whatever we make it and are willing to pursue. I am enchanted by learning and in awe of the art which education is able to evince in our society. In a manner of closing, I would equate James Weldon Johnson’s “Before a Painting” as metaphor for education writ large.
I knew not who had wrought with skill so fine
What I beheld; nor by what laws of art
He had created life and love and heart
On canvas, from mere color, curve and line.
Silent I stood and made no move or sign;
Not with the crowd, but reverently apart;
Nor felt the power my rooted limbs to start,
But mutely gazed upon that face divine.
And over me the sense of beauty fell,
As music over a raptured listener to
The deep-voiced organ breathing out a hymn;
Or as on one who kneels, his beads to tell,
There falls the aureate glory filtered through
The windows in some old cathedral dim
Let us all look forward to taking the time and space we need to educate one another, educate ourselves, and remember the value of teaching and learning in Maine.
English Teacher– Piscataquis Community High School of Guilford, Maine
2018 Piscataquis County Teacher of the Year
2019 Maine Teacher of the Year