Tracy Horodyski dreamed as a child of being a truck driver, but ended up helping steer students toward their own dreams.
Her success in doing so earned her the honor of being named 2016-17 Michigan Teacher of the Year. The 17-year teacher received the news this morning in a surprise announcement at Zinser Elementary School, where she is a reading interventionist and instructional coach. State Superintendent Brian Whiston made the announcement in the school gym jammed with some 300 students, teachers and school officials.
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Horodyski greeted the news by asking everyone to high-five someone nearby, saying they all shared in her honor. “This is because of you!” she told them.
“It’s very humbling, simply because I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for all of the others that I get to learn from,” she said afterward. “For me to be honored, it’s honoring the work of everyone.”
She said that as an ambassador for teachers she hopes to spread the idea of a school culture where teachers and students learn from each other.
“There are so many amazing people dedicating their lives to the lives of others,” she said. “It’s such an amazing gift. We have to remember that. … We truly are learning alongside one another.”
Whiston praised Horodyski as “a passionate teacher who cares deeply about student learning” and as “a living, breathing model of best practices.”
“You can tell she loves what she does and it shows,” Whiston said later, noting her high expectations for students and other teachers. “It’s the teachers who build relationships with us that are the ones that make a difference in our lives, and clearly she does that.”
The honor rightly recognizes an exemplary teacher who brings out the best in others, said Kenowa Hills Superintendent Gerald Hopkins.
“Tracy represents everything that’s great about education,” Hopkins aid. “She models learning and embraces the gift of being a teacher. She’s never satisfied with her own effectiveness, and takes all learners, whether it be her colleagues, students or herself, to heights they aspire to reach.”
Horodyski and Delia Bush, a fifth-grade teacher at Kenowa Hills’ Alpine Elementary, were both among the top four finalists for the honor. Hopkins said state education officials “discovered what we’ve observed for several years: Kenowa Hills has exceptional teachers,” adding that to have one finalist is “amazing, to have two is astounding.”
Horodyski will serve as spokesperson for Michigan’s approximately 100,000 teachers, attend State Board of Education meetings, meet the governor and president, and be a nominee for National Teacher of the Year. She was selected by a committee from 178 nominees.
Serving Both Students and Teachers
The honor recognizes Horodyski’s excellence as a longtime classroom teacher of third- and fourth-grade students, and this year in providing extra help to students struggling with reading.
She also now serves as a half-time instructional coach, observing other teachers in the classroom and leading learning labs where teachers share ideas with each other.
Horodyski takes her motto for coaching from author Kenneth Blanchard: “None of us is as smart as all of us.”
“It’s about growing our thinking together, and knowing we all bring something special to the table,” said Horodyski, 39, a presenter for the Literacy Coaches Network of the Kent ISD. She also has given presentations on “purposeful talk,” a structured method of classroom discussion, at educator conferences.
She said her teaching philosophy boils down to “personalized learning,” and asking students questions that “get them thinking about their thinking, so they can be self-directed learners.”
“It takes a real shift in how we teach,” Horodyski said. “It’s not just about what students learn anymore. It’s also about how they learn, and helping them identify how they learn. It’s about empowering them (with) a shared control, where they are able to take ownership in it and be engaged in the very hard work of learning.”
On a video accompanying her Teacher of the Year application, Horodyski said collaboration has been key to her success. “It’s when the teachers and students are learning alongside one another that the great work of learning is taking place,” she said.
Ross Willick, her principal at Zinser, called Horodyski “a lifelong learner” who constantly tries to improve herself and has a gift for working with students and other teachers. To spark interest in purposeful talk, he noted, she visits classes as “Carol the communicator,” wearing a wig and waitress outfit and spouting a New York City accent.
“She brings excitement about learning,” Willick said. “She helps build confidence in learners. She can make them feel special about being who they are and where they’re at in the learning process.”
Driving the Big Rig
In her professional biography, Horodyski traced her road to teaching back to age 4, when she would gaze longingly at her uncle’s truck cab and dream of being a “big rig trucker mama.” Other aspirations followed as she went through high school, participating in golf and cheerleading, serving in Rotary and student government and being inspired by teachers and coaches.
♥She went to Grand Valley State University aiming for a career in physical therapy. But in writing to a friend with whom she had attended summer camps, which encouraged students to make a difference for others, she realized she was “naturally drawn to teaching,” Horodyski wrote.
She struggled in her first year of teaching, but took to heart advice from a physician uncle to “make it more about them and less about you.” That contributed to what she called her “transformation” and greatest accomplishment in education: listening.
“By truly listening to and honoring the thinking of students, they are learning more and learning it better,” she wrote. “They have been empowered. I would say they are driving the big rig … on their way to college, career, and life readiness.”
Although it’s not an easy philosophy to carry out, she added, “it sure makes this teaching life a joy ride.”