In 2012, we created the Fishman Prize for Superlative Classroom Practice to celebrate phenomenal teachers of low-income students in a way that hadn’t been done before: with a $25,000 prize and an intensive residency experience with TNTP. In the years since, the prize has gone to 16 outstanding winners, and we’ve recognized many more finalists, too. Although the winners and finalists represent diverse backgrounds, teach different subjects and grade levels, and work in urban, suburban, and rural district and charter schools across the country, there is one thing that remains constant about them year after year: Each is driven to improve their instruction and holds a steadfast belief in the potential of their students to achieve anything. These teachers are everything but ordinary—and they know their students are, too.
Today, applications open for the fifth year of our prize. But instead of telling you why you should apply for the prize yourself, or nominate a teacher you know, we thought we’d let our past winners do the talking. So we asked four generations of alumni one simple question: Why did you apply for the Fishman Prize?
Leslie Ross, 2012 Winner
Current Role: Academic Coach for Science and Social Studies, Allen Middle School
Teaches in: Greensboro, North Carolina
Years in the Classroom: 19
Initially, I applied for the Fishman Prize because I hoped to secure funding to purchase laboratory supplies for my high school biology class. When I learned that teachers from all over the country were applying, I became interested in knowing how my instructional practice compared at the national level. I thought the selection process would serve as the litmus test by which I could gauge my overall effectiveness as a teacher. But little did I know that the entire experience would propel my career in a new direction, allowing me to explore the realm of teacher leadership for the first time.
As a recipient of the Fishman Prize, I was able to meet with policy makers at the Department of Education, work side by side with some of the nation’s top educators, and even dine with the President of the United States as we explored ways to promote educational equity in high-need schools. As a result of these experiences, I no longer see myself as an educator making a difference in one classroom at a time—I am a game changer, redefining what it means to be a teacher leader at the district, state, and national level.
It is with great enthusiasm that I call on our nation’s best and brightest teachers to apply at once for the Fishman Prize.
Jennifer Corroy Porras, 2013 Winner
Current Role: 12th Grade IB English, IDEA College Preparatory
Teaches in: Donna, Texas
Years in the Classroom: 10
The most literal answer to why I applied for the Fishman Prize is “because a friend insisted that I do it.” I felt too busy at the time, and I was skeptical about my chances. Yet I believed deeply that my students were accomplishing incredible things, so I decided to go for it.
As I went through the process, I realized I was also doing it because I was craving affirmation for the work my students and I were doing. For me, the application process was its own affirmation. As I reflected on my practice and reached out to others for support, I found myself both articulating and hearing things that bolstered my pride and resolve in this work long before the prize was awarded to me. I would urge anyone to complete the application in order to gain this clarity about yourself as an educator and about why and how you teach.
In fact, to anyone thinking of applying, I would like to be the friend who insists that you do it. It is an opportunity worth the time.
Michael Towne, 2014 Winner
Current Role: 11th and 12th Grade Physics, Citrus Hill High School
Teaches in: Perris, California
Years in the Classroom: 14
From the moment I began the application for the Fishman Prize, I was forced to critically examine my professional attitudes. My recurring question to myself was, "What do I believe as a teacher and why?"
As I planned lessons throughout the application process, I wrote justifications for why I chose certain strategies or how to best assess my students. I asked myself if my classroom was sufficiently student-centered and if there was something I could do to make material more accessible. I considered the strategies I used to encourage participation, improve communication, and expand understanding. I even looked back on my previous years building my school’s science program and tried to make sense of the steps I had taken.
Eventually, I began to see how I had crafted my teaching practice through a process of trial and error informed by research and deliberate collaboration. For the first time in my career, I recognized the personal path that led me to become a proficient teacher. In that moment of clarity, I realized how much I could yet improve and how to plan for that improvement.
Applying for the Fishman Prize allowed me to recognize my own agency as a classroom teacher and identify a path for continual improvement. It was the seminal point of my career as a teacher.
Zeke Phillips, 2015 Winner
Current Role: 9th Grade English, Excel Academy Charter High School
Teaches in: Boston, Massachusetts
Years in the Classroom: 10
I applied for the Fishman Prize on a whim—and with a prayer. I hopped on the TNTP website in mid-November, saw the opportunity, eyed the ultimate prize, and never for a second believed I had a chance. Every day at work I felt humbled to teach alongside amazing educators I was fortunate to call colleagues. Me, recognized in a national contest, up against hundreds if not thousands of incredible teachers like that? No shot. In December I submitted my application and felt like I had bought a lottery ticket: I was high on hope and low on expectations.
But that doesn’t answer the question. Why did I apply? As the process unfolded, my reasoning—buried at the outset—became clear. As a teacher, I believe in the power of possibility. I communicate to my students that, with hard work, they can accomplish great things. So, if I—if we—could win this prize, it would further prove that what we chant at the end of every class is true: “Anything is possible.”
I also believe in the power of a voice. I believe the power of learning lies in being equipped to “take the mic,” and use it to both develop and communicate your experiences, identity, and beliefs. I saw in this award, and in the residency experience, the opportunity to do just that and gain access to experiences that would allow me to continue to grow and challenge myself. Learning, I also tell my students, is a process. For someone always hungry to improve, I wanted to know: How far have I come, and where can I go from here?
If you want to answer these questions for yourself, too, apply. Grab “the mic.” There’s power in taking a shot. The Fishman Prize taught me that.
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