Alabama Teacher of the Year, Ann Marie Corgill: Reflecting and Dreaming
On October 30, 2015, Alabama Teacher of the Year Ann Marie Corgill suddenly resigned from her teaching position.
There is a lot to her story.
On November 20, 2015, I traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, to learn of the details behind Corgill’s resignation, and then some. She graciously allowed me to interview her for over four hours.
I produced a series of five posts based upon our conversation:
- Part I: Corgill’s resignation hits the media;
- Part II: Events leading to Corgill’s resignation;
- Part III: Corgill becomes Alabama Teacher of the Year;
- Part IV: Corgill’s years in New York, and
- Part V: Corgill’s encounters with professional bullying.
Even though Part V was the end of my series, I wanted to offer Ann Marie the opportunity to have the final word. So, I invited her to both reflect on my series and discuss her future plans.
The remainder of this post is Ann Marie’s eloquent and detailed response.
My name is Ann Marie Corgill, and I have taught and learned from children in grades one through six since August of 1994. I know for a fact that my purpose on Earth is to teach and learn with children and then share that learning and growth with others.
When I resigned from my job as fifth grade teacher back in November 2015, I never imagined– or invited– the media frenzy that would accompany it. However, I am grateful to Mercedes Schneider, who knew immediately when she read of my resignation on Al.com, that the story published wasn’t my story, and it wasn’t the whole story.
Readers, this is the first time my fingers have hit the keyboard since I wrote the goodbye letter to my students back in November. Before Christmas, Mercedes requested I write this post, and I have been hesitant. Frozen at the keyboard. Shut down by the idea of putting myself out there one. more. time. I’m channeling my inner Brene Brown and deciding to be vulnerable once again. Why? Because it’s the right thing to do for children, for my fellow colleagues, and for our profession.
As you well know, so much of what gets tweeted, posted, or commented on is more often than not “sound-bitten” and sensationalized at the expense of accuracy and truth.
It’s extremely important for you to know this: Mercedes sought the truth from me.
She didn’t talk to a friend or reporter or remain satisfied with quotes from another article’s gossipy and slanderous message. She contacted me personally to get the truth. Moreover, instead of simply interviewing me over the phone, she took a personal day from school and drove five hours one way to interview me about this career-altering decision that I had just made. Not only did she care about the truth, she cared about my life as a teacher. She cared about my story. I was blown away by her effort and determination to hear what I had to say.
Isn’t that the greatest contribution our students ache for and need from us, their teachers? They need us to enter each year committed to finding the truths about each one of them and to build those relationships from the ground up, rather than relying solely on the, “Oh dear…let me tell you about this kid….good luck with that.” kinds of stories that follow some children. Students need us to be the teachers who will listen intently to their stories with open ears and open hearts, without judgment, and then help them live their lives and pursue their dreams passionately, courageously, and truthfully.
Isn’t that what we ache for as teachers in our world today? We need people who professionally publish stories– or who hold influential offices– or who oversee the spending of state education funds– to really hear us. We need these people to respect our expertise, to listen, and then to act with passion, courage, and conviction as we transform education together, for the benefit of children.
I am confident that when listening and then writing this series of posts, Mercedes knew that this was not just a singular story of a teaching career. She knew it wasn’t just my story.
- It is a story that stands with the hundreds of thousands of teachers across this country, who work tirelessly year after year after year because they are experts at their craft and care about children and their futures.
- It is a story of teachers who are career educators, risk takers, and forever learners and who know that to be the best teachers for children, they must sometimes step out of their comfortable places and grow forward.
- It is a story of educational clutter, of policies and procedures and requirements so disconnected to children and teachers that the clutter makes any form of sustained, successful work difficult.
- It’s a story that both cheers on and discourages National Board Certified teachers, those who spend thousands of dollars and take years to reflect, write, videotape, and refine their practice (in addition to teaching full time), simply because they want to be a better teachers and reach more students. It also causes us to ask, “Why bother?” when the harsh reality it that national teaching certification means nothing when one’s job is on the line.
- It is a story of the 2015 version of 1960’s racism. It’s forgetting that the way to change a future is to embrace all cultures, to re-affirm self-worth, and to create opportunities for interacting and problem solving. It’s moving outside of a life of privilege or poverty and defying a narrow view of the world.
- It’s a story of the good, the bad, and the ugly of teacher leadership. It shows what’s possible through hard work and perseverance and what’s painful and paralyzing because of it.
- It is a story that speaks for those teachers whose voices remain silent in fear of what might happen to their job, their reputation, or their future if they speak the truth.
- It’s a story showing that life is filled with seasons, and each one has its worth. What often feels like failing is actually the gaining of valuable experience, and it’s in facing the tough times that we become strong, resilient, brave, and joyful, forgiving, and thankful.
Thank you, Mercedes, for nudging me to finish this story, and begin at chapter one of the next.
So, What Next?
Right now, in January of 2016, I have no idea about what next school year will bring. Seriously. Honestly, for the first time in my life, I have no idea. Here’s what I’d like to say:
This is NOT the last time I will ever set foot in a classroom.
I was created to do this work with children, no matter what the newspapers and tweets might say.
My job isn’t to stress over what’s next, but to make sure my heart is whole and my eyes are focused forward. I can’t take on God’s next assignment if I’m worrying about what the media and about what anonymous commenters who hide behind names like @ChickenDaddy#1 have to say.
I’ve been dwelling, re-thinking, re-reading, worrying, wondering, and wallowing in the press coverage and pain of that resignation.
Now, I’m moving forward and claiming this whole hard experience as part of my story, one that will polish and refine me for the next work.
Alabama is my home; my family is here, and I believe there’s something big, serious, and specific I need to do in this city of Birmingham to help others. That’s all I know for sure.
Just because I don’t exactly know what’s next for me does not mean that I will stop dreaming big, crazy dreams. I’m a believing-in-dreams-coming-true kind of girl.
I dream of leading the team that creates a school, from the ground up, in downtown Birmingham, Alabama.
I will refer to it as “Our School” because I’ve had this conversation for years with numerous like-minded friends and colleagues. I believe it’s safe to say that when this dream comes true, it will come true because of a community of like-minded educators, believers in children, and staunch supporters of high-quality public education.
First, I’ll tell you what this school is not, and then I’ll explain what the dream could become. The details are below are aspirations toward which we will be constantly reaching:
- Our dream school is not a school named charter, magnet, gifted, segregated, private, government-run, or disability-proofed. It is a public school, and the word public drives our passionate belief that each human being is equally important and deserves the best that public education has to offer. We call everyone– from child to teacher to cafeteria chef to custodian to principal– a “forever learner.”
- Our dream school is not made up of a hodgepodge of teaching and learning philosophies and beliefs. Making connections and building on the teaching and learning from one year to the next is at the center of our success. “How will this help our students learn and grow?” is the question that guides every decision made in and for our school. Our teachers are like-minded, in both pedagogy and practice, yet valued for the individual gifts and strengths they bring to the community. We learn from each other and build on one another’s ideas by reading, attending professional conferences, watching the teaching practices of one another, engaging in respectful discourse, and learning through trial, error, and revision. Our learning is continuous, and our work is ongoing, vibrant, and child centered.
- The belief that the best learning only happens within the four walls of the classroom is obsolete. Our dream school welcomes and encourages family and community involvement. We see these stakeholders as valuable, irreplaceable assets in our curriculum development, our school life, and our daily learning experiences. Relationships are at the heart of our work, and our relationships with families, local community members, and visitors make it possible for authentic learning experiences to occur.
- Our dream school is not one with the “no excuses” mantra, extra academic hours, homework, Saturday school, or monotonous standardized test prep to ensure high scores and test-focused “success.” Our school is one where joy is palpable when one enters the front door. Ownership and engagement are paramount. The community of learners eagerly shares their thinking, their questions, their mistakes, their discoveries, their creations, and their innovations with visitors and with each other.
- In our dream school, adults screaming at or belittling children will not be tolerated. Visitors won’t see straight, silent lines in the hallways, or the revoking of recess as punishment, or stickers and star reward charts, or teachers who demand respect by either threatening children or using corporal punishment. In our dream school, everyone recognizes and honors the fact that the head and the heart are in one body, and one cannot teach the mind without tending to the heart. In our school, along with academic learning, both children and adults have multiple, daily opportunities for conversation and problem solving and for developing both self-management skills and empathy for others. We see this work as non-negotiable and critical to a child’s development, rather than a “waste of academic time.”
- Our dream school discourages the use of value-added measures or evaluation tools developed by companies or passed as law by politicians, who are far removed from our classrooms. As a community of learners, we work together at the school level to foster ownership in learning, teaching, and evaluating our practice. Since our work is created for authentic purposes that are connected to our community and outside world, engagement is high and learners are intrinsically motivated to tackle problems, create solutions, and produce high quality, meaningful work. Since teachers are valued, respected and seen as professionals by both the community and the state, they are compensated fairly, just as are the doctors in our community.
- Instead of studying numerical data and comparing last year’s numbers to this year’s, or disaggregating data to build walls of unfair comparison, our dream school values the living sources of information right in front of our eyes—the children. We do not teach to the test so that our children will score high enough to guarantee teacher pay raises or news media accolades. In our school, each staff member is considered a teacher-researcher and expert kid-watcher, and is skilled at diagnosing and treating academic and social challenges and struggles. Just as we trust doctors to diagnose and treat patients, our teachers are able to do just that in an educational setting. Our teachers consider student work, student conversations, student actions, student reactions, student collaboration, student problem solving, and any additional student behaviors or anecdotal records as valuable information. We use this information to determine teaching moves, to plan remediation, to accelerate instruction, and to document and showcase student growth over time.
- Our dream school does not prepare students for the future grade level, the future school, the future college, or the future career. We prepare our students for the future by living fully in the present. As John Dewey once said, “I believe that education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.” We choose to live truthfully, joyfully, and with possibility.
It’s time for dreams like our school to become the reality in my state and around the country. Teachers must write the counter-narrative for our cities, our states, and our nation. Our current educational climate gives us ample motivation and multiple opportunities to speak loudly and share our expertise about how to most effectively educate future generations of children.
I believe in a future for our nation in which a majority of classroom teachers are at the table when decisions are made, bills are passed, acts are signed, and laws are enforced.
I believe in the future of my state, the state of Alabama, where we hear the teachers’ voices and see their expertise in the legislation passed.
I believe in Birmingham, Alabama. The Magic City. My city. A city that refused to live in the shadow of its past and chose to move into a future where children from all parts of the city, from families with different races, different cultures, different bank accounts, different hopes, and different histories come together to live, learn and teach as one community.
I thank all who have encouraged, supported, and prayed, for me, and for all students, and for the future of education.
The seasons of my teaching career have been filled with joy and heartache, opportunities and dead ends, light and darkness, and time and space to grow.
Here’s to truth, joy, and the possibility of making dreams come true for teachers and children.
Ann Marie Corgill
A Corgill Photo Gallery (click images to enlarge):
Students respond to the upheaval of Corgill’s forced move from second to fifth grade. Corgill sent these photos, with the note, “I can’t read them without getting emotional.”