Alabama Teacher of the Year Resigns– The Backstory, Part III
On October 30, 2015, the 2014-15 Alabama Teacher of the Year, Ann Marie Corgill, abruptly resigned from teaching at Birmingham City Schools after a taxing ordeal in the first two months of the 2015-16 school year.
I had the privilege of interviewing Corgill in person for several hours on November 20, 2015. Based on that interview, I have already written two posts, one focused on how Corgill’s resignation became public, and another detailing the fiasco that resulted in her October 2015 resignation.
In this third post of the series, I offer the detailed and candid interview excerpt on Corgill’s becoming 2014-15 Alabama Teacher of the Year– and a 2014-15 National Teacher of the Year finalist.
During the course of our extensive conversation, the issue of teacher bullying emerged as a theme. Even though this issue was interwoven into our discussion of Corgill’s experience as Teacher of the Year, I have chosen to omit such discussion in this post and instead save it for a later post. Thus, Part III details the specifics of Corgill’s becoming Teacher of the Year.
As was true of Part II, in this post, Corgill’s words are indented, and my comments and questions are in quotation marks and not indented.
Here we go:
[In 2013-14, at Cherokee Bend Elementary in Mountain Brook] my principal moved me to fourth grade [from teaching second grade the previous year], which ended up being a good move for several of us in the building because they were losing a kindergarten unit that year, and a returning second grade teacher was only certified pre-K through [grade] 3– but I had National Board certification up to sixth grade.
So, the returning teacher returned to second grade, and I got moved to fourth [grade]. I was certified to do that– when actually, in retrospect, that wasn’t the truth [given that the state of Alabama does not recognize National Board certification].
“Who said you were certified? Who told you that you were certified? Like, they told you, ‘We’re moving you because you’re certified, and she’s not, and you wanted to move.”
I did want to move. I did want to move. But the reason that I got to move to that grade, and the other girl didn’t have that option, is because I was certified, and she wasn’t.
“So, they’re losing the kindergarten unit; you’ve asked to be moved from second grade…”
“And so, the fact that your administrator… they told you that it’s okay because you have National Board.”
“So, you moved to fourth grade. And this is 2013-14. Were you in fourth grade for two years?”
I was in fourth grade for two years, and I won Alabama Teacher of the Year in 2014-15.
“After your first year of teaching fourth grade?”
“Who nominated you for Teacher of the Year?”
A faculty vote. They chose the person with the most votes.
“The whole school thinks enough of you to vote for you as Teacher of the Year. Were you surprised?”
I don’t like public recognition like that.
“That’s funny [given that your resignation made national news]. So, you get this nomination. Could you refuse it?”
I did. I remember my principal and assistant principal came in [my classroom] and said, “Guess what!” You know, they were really sweet and excited, and I said, ‘No. Thank you, but not doing that again.” I had filled out an application [years before] when I was in Hoover and had gone through…
“This is when you had [previously] gone to the top four?”
Yes. And so, I had done [the work to get] all the way to the top four. And I knew the application process was horrendous. It’s a lot of writing; it’s a lot of reflecting. [This time, in 2014], I said, “No. Thank you, though, but somebody else can do this. I’m honored; I’m flattered. I can’t believe it. But no, thank you.” And they didn’t accept that. So, I did it again.
“So, how is it that they didn’t accept that? You couldn’t tell them no?”
Well, I did try, like, three or four times.
“They just kept coming to you?”
I remember sitting at my computer. [They didn’t keep coming.] They just stood there. They stood there and said, “Well, you’re it.”
“But I’m not.”
“But yes, you are. You have to.” And then, I remember, I think the way that they got me to do it, they said, “All you have to do is fill out the part of the application that goes to the district. Then, they’re going to pick a district winner, and then, the district will go to the regions, and so, just focus on the district application right now. You don’t have to [complete] the whole [application]. Don’t worry about that.”
I was like, “All right. All right.”
I did the district application. And I won the district.
“How did you feel when you found out that you won the district? Who told you?”
I’m trying to think. I guess my principal. I don’t remember how I found out. It wasn’t a big deal, and I think she made it not a big deal because she knew that I was not ready to put myself into that again. I didn’t want to put myself into any kind of spotlight. I just wanted to do my work.
“This [being Teacher of the Year] was not your idea?
“So, you win district. You don’t remember who told you?”
I think it came in an email. My principal told me, but we didn’t make it a big deal. It was right before the Christmas holidays. Everybody was in holiday chaos. Nobody was paying attention. It was great. It worked out beautifully.
“Beautiful from your perspective?”
Yes, from my perspective: No one knew…. It wasn’t a big deal, which was good. And then, they send the district winner applications off, and they chose the top 16. That was the next thing that came, and I was in the 16 finalists from the whole state. So then, it was like, [oh, no].
“How did you learn [that you were in the top 16]?”
It came from the state department. There was a press release from the state department.
“The same state department that later that you didn’t have [proper] certification?”
[Corgill laughs.] Different department in the state. When everybody in all these articles [about my October 2015 resignation] says, “the state department”… I want to clarify, there are lots of departments in “the state department.” And I am a one hundred percent fan of our state superintendent, but he is one person, and he does not have one hundred percent control of all of those departments and of the rules that had been made before he [became superintendent].
So, this department that sent this [top 16 notification] was the “state teacher of the year” department, I guess. And he (the superintendent) is part of that, yes.
“Let me ask you this: You made the finalists. No one is checking credentials?”
No, I guess not.
“So, no credential [check]. Now, was there some publicity associated with this [top 16 press release]?”
It’s a blur. That was an amazing [fourth grade] class. We were doing this cool technology “ed camp”– I don’t know if you’ve experienced “ed camp,” but it’s more like participant-led staff development, and I had done a couple of adult ones with my district and a district out-of-state, and I thought, “Well, if adults can do this, then let’s lead a kid one.” So, I was doing this with my fourth graders: They were teaching and learning about all kinds of technology tools and how to use those to get your voice out to the world.
We were planning this huge “ed camp” day for our entire school, where my kids were going to teach. I was wrapped up in this big project with them; so, I was– the Teacher of the Year finalist issue, I was proud and honored– but that was in the back of my head. I was ready for May 19th, when we were going to put this “ed camp” on. We were making t-shirts, and then the kids were doing screen casts, and video practice, all kinds of stuff.
So. I get the call that I am in the final four, and I’m going to have to miss a couple of days because they’re going to have this big [final four] event in Montgomery to present the state teacher of the year. And the four finalists are there, and I’m thinking, “No! I’m going to miss two days of school, and we have work to do [for “ed camp”].”
And I remember telling the sub, she goes, “What do you want me to do?” and I said, “Just be here. They know what to do.” And she looked at me like I had three heads. I said, “I promise they know what to do. They have their plan. They know.”
I went away for those two days.
“Did your kids know why?”
Yes. They knew.
“What did they think of that?”
They were proud and excited, but they were [focused on their “ed camp” project]. They kept working. They created. They never missed a beat without me, and that was probably my most proud moment of that year: That I went away for two days [and] the sub, who had no idea what was going on, walked around and watched, and they (the students) created an intro i-movie about the growth mindset and the things that they had learned. They set up the program. They planned how we were going to get the t-shirts out. They had everything ready to go for this [“ed camp”] that was happening the Monday after this Teacher of the Year celebration.
So: Teacher of the Year, or watching all these kids be independent, autonomous, excited, engaged, ready to present to an audience? That [the student initiative for “ed camp”] was what was cool.
And, yes, I was surprised [to be chosen Alabama Teacher of the Year]. I kind of knew before it happened because a lot of people from the district kept showing up [in Montgomery]. All these people from the district kept filing in, and they were all sitting in the front two rows. And I though, “Oh, no.”
I’m in there [the locale in Montgomery where the Teacher of the Year will be announced], and people kept coming. There are all of these people, everybody from the superintendent to the technology person [from my district], and one of my parents, who was also a teacher.
Both of my parents and my sister [were present], but they would come if I was 125th place. But I knew [that day] something was up. There were too many people [from my district for it to be otherwise].
So, that happened [being chosen state teacher of the year], and I go back to school, and we end the year, and it was great. That was at the end of the year.
Then I have to make a decision because when you’re Teacher of the Year in Alabama, you have the choice of taking the year off– and the district pays your salary while you speak around the state and do whatever [Teachers of the Year] do– or you stay in the classroom and then speak when you can.
“Did you get a Mercedes?”
No! Louisiana [Teacher of the Year] gets a Mercedes– to keep! No! I got a white car with a sticker on the side that says– a big sticker that doesn’t come off– that says, “Alabama’s Teacher of the Year” with an apple!
[We’re both laughing.] I’m not ungrateful, not ungrateful, but note to the Teacher of the Year car-givers: make it (the sticker) a magnet so that the people can peel it off!
So, I have to make a decision: Do I stay….
“Do you still have the car?”
No. We have to give it back.
This cracks me up again. “Oh, you have to give your car… you get it for a year!”
Drive it for a year. It’s big, with a sticker. People would send texts: “Hey! Saw you driving through so-and-so today.” “Did you have dinner with so-and-so last night? Saw your car.” I’m thinking, [face palm]. Yeah. All of my friends got a big kick out of that [big car with a sticker] and have used that for some practical jokes… and will probably continue [to tease me about it].
So, I have to decide, do I stay? Do I go? I decided to stay. That’s what I do: I teach children.
“Okay. So, the offer is to tour, or you stay teaching and you don’t tour?”
You stay teaching, and you tour when you can. And that’s– dummy– that’s what I chose. I’m saying “dummy” in retrospect because I said, “How can somebody be Teacher of the Year and not be teaching children?” I just don’t understand that. Good for the people who have done that, but I cannot be Alabama Teacher of the Year and not be in a classroom with children.
All of this was a total God thing: Found this amazing student teacher, Taylor Drozenski, who came from New York State. Her family was from there. We connected immediately. She had been to UAB (University of Alabama at Birmingham), was taught under many of the people whom I was taught under, so we had… I remember saying to my principal, “It’s got to be somebody who is like-minded because it’s not going to be fair to the children if they have somebody in here, and when I have to leave, that person does things completely differently and has completely different ways of….”
“What do you mean, when you have to leave? When you have to go do your [Teacher of the Year] duties?”
Like if somebody calls and says, “We need you to speak next Friday.”
“Okay. Okay. So you’re still teaching full time, but you’re just talking about having someone in there (the class) as a stand-in when you’re called away.
And, in the fall, the great thing about this is she would be my student teacher, Taylor, and I knew in the fall I wouldn’t be travelling much at all; so, I could actually mentor and help her.
It was an amazing fall because we fed off of each other: I learned from her, she learned from me. The kids were great.
And then came spring. I was gone a lot. And that was when I found out I had made the finalists for National Teacher of the Year. That was January, so I knew immediately I was going to have twice as many [engagements] and be [away from school] more.
“When you say you made finalist, how many?”
Four. I was sitting in a fractions workshop with her [my student teacher] on a Friday afternoon, and Dr. Bice (the state superintendent) called. [When we finally spoke, I was] standing in a Taco Mama, getting lunch, and he called and asked, “What would you do if I said you were in the top four for National Teacher of the Year?”
I said, “No. Freaking. Way.”
And he goes, “Yes, freaking way.” And he adds, “But you can’t tell anyone because they’ve got to contact all of the four, and they’re not going to do a press release for two more weeks.” So, I’m standing in the taco place with Taylor and another colleague that’s at the workshop, and I have to pretend that I don’t know this. And the national office called, so I had to [go out and] take that call. Then I had to make some story up [to explain the phone calls].
We go back to the math workshop. My friends who were teaching it said, “You just shut down after lunch. You just were useless.”
Yes, I was useless because I couldn’t tell a soul that I had just been chosen as a finalist, which was exciting. Nobody [was supposed to know]. I did call my dad. I said, “You can’t tell my mother because she’ll tell.”
So, anyway, that happened, and then, so, I was gone. The White House. The interview. I was in Phoenix for a week. It was a pretty amazing spring as far as that goes. I was meeting colleagues from all over the nation, like-minded people who were engaged and interested and interesting and so smart. And I was learning from them and sitting in the President’s chair right before [going into] the Oval Office and walking out to the rose garden. And standing and listening to Shanna, the girl who won. You know, it was just surreal.
As much as I loved all of that, I felt this deep sense of guilt for not being with the children and with [my student teacher] because I wasn’t there for them. That was my first duty, and I was doing all of this other stuff.
Now, everybody said to me, “That’s why we hired [the student teacher]. She’s here because we knew you would have to travel in the spring.” But that didn’t make it any easier or better. And it was hard for Taylor because she was new. She needed a mentor. She needed a colleague. …She was very isolated at that point. So, that was hard.
So then, the Washington trip comes and goes; it was wonderful. I didn’t win, thankfully. [My student teacher/substitute, Taylor] moved back to New York.
I had been talking all year about this tug in my heart to not stay in Mountain Brook, not because it wasn’t a good place, not because I hadn’t learned a lot, but because it was comfortable. And I had heard from so many people who were previous Teachers of the Year [who are] my friends now of how hard it is to be Teacher of the Year, National Teacher of the Year and go back to your school after that’s all over. Lots of hard stories [because of being singled out and not longer accepted as being a “regular” teacher]. Talk to any Teacher of the Year. They have a story. Any one. It’s truly amazing how many people give up, change professions, do something different within education, leave the classroom, leave the school, do a different thing because it’s just hard [to go back to what was]. And I was anticipating that.
But that wasn’t the reason for leaving [Mountain Brook for Birmingham City]. My reason was that I wanted to continue to be a teacher and a learner.
Corgill concludes by saying that teaching at Mountain Brook had become “easy” and that she “felt herself losing ground” intellectually– which is actually the beginning of the interview excerpt featured in Part II of this series.
I admire Corgill for her obvious devotion to her students and to becoming an ever-better teacher– a devotion that will take eventually us into more candid conversation related to an under-discussed topic of teacher bullying.
That noted, for the next post, I will offer Corgill’s experience teaching for several years in New York City.
Stay tuned for Part IV.