Surrounded by a dozen exemplary teachers in the room, Michigan Teacher of the Year Tracy Horodyski paid close attention to the advice of one of them.
“It’s a real gift,” said Nancy Flanagan, the award’s recipient in 1992-93. “Don’t let that soap box go to waste.”
Horodyski has no such intention, as the Kenowa Hills teacher begins her tenure as the state-selected Michigan Teacher of the Year for 2016-17. She recently was welcomed into the ranks of past recipients in an annual “Pass the Torch” luncheon at the home of Susan Gutierrez, the 2002-03 MTOY and now principal of Forest Hills Northern Trails 5/6 school.
The event, also attended by state Superintendent Brian Whiston, both celebrated Horodyski’s honor and encouraged top-notch teachers to speak out in support of public policy for better schools.
“What she has to look forward to is the opportunity to serve,” said Rick Joseph, last year’s MTOY and an elementary teacher in Birmingham Public Schools. “To serve fellow educators through raising our voice and speaking to the reality of life in schools,” as well as to the issues that affect students.
Joseph and other teachers told of how their awards gave them a platform to speak on students’ behalf and initiate new ventures. In the past year Joseph spoke with Gov. Rick Snyder and his education adviser at a state summit; met with Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, a community college professor; and met briefly with President Obama along with visiting schools and attending State Board of Education monthly meetings.
The Academy Awards for Teachers
The day before the gathering, Horodyski attended her first State Board meeting – a practice first suggested by Gutierrez in 2003 and followed by all MTOYs since. The 17-year teaching veteran said she’s had a “very energizing summer” since receiving the honor in May.
“I’ve had the opportunity to network with so many people that have influenced me,” said Horodyski, a reading interventionist and instructional coach at Zinser Elementary School. “It’s helped me to solidify my focus for the year, and align it with where the state is headed.”
She networked on this day with some of the best in her field. Matinga Ragatz, the 2010-11 MTOY, pinned her as a new member of the Network of Michigan Educators dedicated to impacting K-12 education.
Gutierrez said it was a delight to host such a gathering of talent.
“This is like the Academy Awards,” said Gutierrez, a Forest Hills Central Middle School history teacher when she was named MTOY. “It’s just the most positive people on the planet, working with kids.”
She and others told Horodyski of the impact the honor had on their careers – and on their opportunities to help students and schools.
“Don’t be shy to ask,” Gutierrez said. “Don’t be shy to do. You kind of get to decide your niche of what you want to talk about.”
Nancy Flanagan, retired from Hartland Consolidated Schools, now writes a blog for Education Week. Matinga Ragatz is now an education technology consultant with Communications by Design. Margaret Holtschlag, the 1999-2000 MTOY, founded and directs BIG Lesson, which uses nature centers and museums as teaching venues.
Power of the Teacher Voice
Bobbi Jo Kenyon, the 2012-13 MTOY from Grand Rapids Public Schools, said the award made her realize the impact she could have beyond the classroom by addressing policy issues.
“There’s so much power in the teacher voice when teachers come together,” said Kenyon, a biology teacher at Ottawa Hills High School. “It changed a lot of ideas I had (about) working with other teachers, and the impact our ideas can have to make some change in our school and our district.”
Whiston, the state superintendent, told the group it’s crucial “our voice as educators is being heard” by legislators and others as Michigan seeks to become a top 10 education state.
“When there are problems or things that need to be addressed in education, they seem to go everywhere but us,” Whiston said. “We need to change that dynamic.”
Joseph said his year as MTOY gave him a wider perspective on schools and the profound impact of poverty and inequity on students. He said it also gave him “the realization that I have a voice, and that it’s critically important for me to raise that voice.”
Horodyski hopes to use her voice to highlight educational values like shared leadership, inquiry and collaboration, and teachers and students learning alongside one another to “develop our collective capacity to add value to the greater good.”
“I am so thankful to have the opportunity to be able to listen and learn from all of these people who have experienced this, and the way they lift you up,” she said after the gathering. “They make you feel truly part of a family.”