Keeping Company With Greatness
When you hang around great teachers, you’re bound to learn a lot. Imagine how much I learned this past weekend when I was with nine of the finest teachers in the United States. They were the finalists for this year’s Fishman Prize, a $25,000 award TNTP created last year to honor outstanding practitioners working in low-income schools.
Actually, there weren’t just nine incredible teachers who came to our Brooklyn office. There were fourteen. That’s because we were joined by Shira Fishman and the four other teachers who made up our inaugural group of winners (that's them, hanging out at Borough Hall on Sunday, above). They traveled from across the country to be present for the selection of their successors and to share their candid reflections on the experience and how it has affected them.
Many people reading this already know last year’s Fishman winners through their fantastic essay collection, Unlocking Student Effort. There was Leslie Ross, a high school biology teacher who helps her students conquer their fear of science by sharing her own fears. She and her husband drove all the way from North Carolina to be with us. There was Katie Lyons from Chicago, who specializes at making content relevant to the rich lives her students are living. There was Whitney Henderson from New Orleans, who makes better writers of her middle school students by convincing them that writing is worth doing. And there was Jamie Irish, also from New Orleans, an electric math teacher whose classes stop at nothing to show they are second to none in the state of Louisiana.
I find inspiration in the Fishman winners every day. They are astonishing educators and even better people. My goal for this year’s winners, who will be announced in a few weeks, is to make the original honorees proud. To me there is no higher standard.
The selection process is extremely difficult. Almost 600 star teachers representing almost every state began the process. Many of them have already been honored by their networks, districts and states. We review detailed essays and recommendations. We ask for classroom video submissions. As the pool narrows, we even send expert observers to make unannounced classroom visits. Eventually, 600 applicants became nine finalists.
At the center of it all is Shira Fishman. She gave up a career in engineering to become one of the most celebrated high school math teachers in the country at Washington D.C.’s McKinley Technology High School. We named the award for her because she embodies everything the prize is meant to celebrate. She is spirited and tireless, but she is also kind and humble. She participates as a selector in the award process. If a finalist is good enough for Shira, that person is good enough for us.
It is impossible not to have a good time when you are with great teachers. The weekend consists of individual interviews with the finalists plus a celebratory dinner where they have an opportunity to meet one another. We scheduled time for the finalists to meet casually with last year’s winners, which turned into a three-hour roundtable that eventually had to be broken up so they could pose for a group photo.
So I am not surprised that I enjoyed the weekend so much. But I am always surprised by how much I learn—about classroom techniques, about what drives great teachers to do what they do, and about the solutions to our pressing problems that are already being discovered in schools every day.
Stay tuned. In the coming weeks, we’ll share details about the nine finalists and this year’s four awardees. With such a group of finalists, we can’t go wrong.