A Letter to My Fellow Teachers at the Beginning of the School Year
August 23, 2016
I want to begin by telling you a story. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve remembered a Walt Disney quote I heard during my first trip to Disneyland: “A dream is a wish your heart makes.” I was the little girl who dreamed about being a Disney princess and marrying Prince Charming when I grew up.
Then my dream evolved into wanting to be a teacher whose alter ego was a Disney princess. I wanted to do something in my life that I knew would have a lasting impact, whether on one person or many. That brought me here with you to mark the end of our summer and the beginning of turning your wishes into reality during another transformational school year.
You may not know the extent of the impact you’re going to have, but you’re about to impact your future, and our country’s future, in ways you may have never thought possible. I can bet that we’ve each been asked the question, “Why did you want to become a teacher?” For my answer, I think back to the opportunities I was afforded growing up: I had the opportunity to have amazing teachers, to attend private school my whole life, to be involved with outside leadership conferences, and to do anything I set my mind to.
When I think back to my first day teaching in a public school, I think about my students. I think about Jaime, who yelled at his mother during a parent-teacher conference because he didn’t understand that there were people who cared about his success. I think about Eduardo, who called me “Mom” for three years because he was in and out of foster care and never knew his mother. I think about Ja Quan, who was pushed through the system because he was seen as a “behavior problem.” I think about Ivon, who wanted to go to college but was told she couldn’t because English wasn’t her first language. I think about Devin, who worked six nights a week from 5 to 10 on top of going to school because his family was having financial problems. I think about the change I wanted to make in their lives, and the sense of personal responsibility I felt for making that change.
This school year will be my third in the city I’m now able to call home, Las Vegas. I was born and raised in Hawaii, but like they say, Las Vegas is the ninth Hawaiian Island. Las Vegas is a city with rich history and culture, but it’s often overlooked when it comes to the education of our kids.
For some of you, this might be your first time to Vegas, or you might be entering your second year here. For others, this might be another chapter in the city where you were born and raised.
When I found out I was moving to Las Vegas, I had to let go of the stereotypical images: the glimmering lights of the Las Vegas Strip, the shows, the gambling, and the over-the-top food and drinks. I had to take in the words and phrases that are everywhere in this amazing city.
As we celebrate this joyous occasion, in keeping with the vibrancy and spirit of Las Vegas, I want to share a few of those words with you today. First, “all in.” If you’ve ever watched a movie with a gambling scene or walked through a casino, you’ve heard this phrase from a player who’s betting everything that he or she has on a particular hand. As teachers, we go all in every second of every day with our students. We give everything we have to ensure they’re succeeding and thriving. We know that our students learn skills and content that we pass on to them, but we also know that we learn every day from our students, making us students as well. We’re all in, spending countless hours teaching, participating in virtual classes, supporting our fellow classmates, and collaborating to fine tune our teaching practices.
Second, “bet.” Any time someone sits at a slot machine or card table, they make a bet—they risk something on the outcome of a specific event. Every time we set foot in our classroom or give students an assignment, we bet on them. We bet they will achieve. We bet they will succeed. We bet they will beat the statistics. Third, “odds.” When someone makes a bet, they consider the probability of winning. Students in low-income communities and students of color do not have the odds in their favor when it comes to educational access and outcomes. Your students have a better chance of beating the odds when they have teachers who believe in them and care about their life, happiness, and overall success. I charge you to be one of those teachers.
Before I close, I want to share a quote from one of my all-time favorite Disney movies, Lilo and Stitch: “Ohana means family, and family means no one gets left behind or forgotten.” This is a concept I try to embody in my classroom, and I encourage you to incorporate some form of it in your classroom as well.
Growing up in Hawaii, I learned that family is the most important thing in your life; without it, you don’t have anything. Your classroom is your family. The teachers, staff, administration, and students at your school are your family. We have to ensure that our classrooms are family for our students as well. We have to make sure our students are not left behind or forgotten.
I’m putting on my teacher hat now and giving you an assignment: Take that famous tagline for my city—“What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”—and challenge it. Don’t leave behind what happens here, in this new chapter of your lives as amazing teachers. Take what you’ve learned and will learn from your education, your opportunities, your dreams, and your students, and share it with the world.
You are the change we need in our future. It’s time for you to defy the odds, make a bet on yourselves, and go all in on your future, and our future. It’s time to take all that you are and make the change we need. Here’s to the new school year, teachers. Let’s make it the best one yet.