For the past year, we have watched our colleague Derek Olson assume the role of Minnesota Teacher of the Year. We have read about his expereince in the local and state newspapers; learned about his motivations for becoming a teacher; and even tuned into his blog as he traveled to Washington DC to meet policy makers and President Obama.
Sixth grade teacher Derek Olson’s time as Teacher of the Year ended recently and as he reflects on his year, he cites his recent trip to Washington DC to meet with policy makers as a highlight of his year.
The first week of May, Olson and the 49 other Teachers of the Year were honored in the first Rose Garden ceremony. Olson says that upon his return everyone asked, “Did you get to meet President Obama?” He did, but says, “After I reflect on the week, there was so much more than that. It was just as important to meet with people who make decisions related to education. Meeting Obama was the icing on the cake, but the meat of the trip was talking to policy makers.”
During his time in DC, Olson had an opportunity to discuss educational policy with U.S. Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar. Olson, along with the other 49 Teachers of the Year spent the better half of the day answering questions for policy-makers about educational legislation like NCLB. He reflects that the biggest irony is “as teachers we shouldn’t have to win awards to get the attention of politicians to speak about education.” Regardless, Olson felt politicians were “receptive and interested in their opinion.”
Olson’s sixth grade students watched his adventures on the “Mr. O in Washington DC” blog created to keep the students informed and involved in his experience. They were able to read a daily update of his experiences, take polls and surveys about which places Olson should visit, and see countless photos of Olson with the President, Jill Biden, and various sight-seeing adventures. Throughout his year, Olson “tried hard to have the students walk through [the experience] with me.”
After spending time with other great educators, Olson says, this experience “confirmed for me what I knew to begin with: the high quality of education in Stillwater. After meeting with teachers from other districts, what I view as normal here would be viewed as exceptional elsewhere.” Olson explains other teachers from around the country commented “it was the first time in 30 years they felt like they were working with professionals.”
At home, Olson appreciates how “supportive my colleagues have been.” He believes there “is no one best teacher in Stillwater or even in the state of Minnesota.” He feels he represents the many talented teachers who he views as mentors.
Olson recently handed over the title to the new Teacher of the Year to eighth grade teacher Amber Damm from Minneapolis. During this past year, Olson tried to “emphasize the benefit to all citizens of a strong public education system.” He added that in tough economic times, people want to know what public schools can offer and he wants to advocate for schools. “We need to not be afraid to talk about the good things that are happening. Too much of what gets said about public schools is negative and nobody is in a better position than teachers to counteract those negative messages. People do have faith in teachers.” Olson adds, “We can’t just close our doors and teach—we need to let families know what great schools Stillwater schools are.”
This past year has provided Olson an opportunity for professional growth. He says, “This experience has been a great opportunity mid-career to be reflective in a way I may not have been able to do otherwise.”
Although Olson’s Teacher of the Year experience is largely at an end, he will participate in some national experiences like Space Camp in July with fellow Teachers of the year and a trip to Princeton University next fall to do some video filming explaining why he chose to be a teacher.