What does it mean to be named 'Michigan’s Teacher of the Year'  

Melody Arabo Reflects on Her Honor and Her Service

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What a difference a year makes. At a surprise assembly in May of 2014, I went from being a third grade teacher to being the voice for teachers across the state. I was suddenly the Michigan Teacher of the Year. I realized very quickly that this would be no easy task, but I was equally open to and terrified of taking on the challenge. To earn the honor, I had to dig deep into my beliefs and values as an educator, and construct a vision for the future of the profession. But now I would actually have to put those philosophies into practice. While that day was incredible and overwhelming and emotional, it couldn’t even begin to prepare me for the wonder and awe I would experience through this once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

The question I was asked most often in that role was, “What did you do this year?” Now that I have had time to reflect, I know exactly how to answer.

The first thing I did was to try and understand the purpose of this role and why I would ever be worthy of it. My good friend and predecessor, Gary Abdu, was a guiding light for me. He didn’t even know me when this began, but still spent countless hours sharing his experience, offering advice, and helping me see the value I could bring to others. It is hard for teachers to see themselves as valuable, but I know now how powerful it can be when they do. So, what did I do this year? I found my purpose.

It took me a while, but I broke through the stifling culture of our humble profession and learned to be confident about my strengths and comfortable with sharing them. I started blogging, tweeting, speaking at events, presenting at conferences, and engaging in policy. I didn’t realize how important it is for teachers to do these things, but I know now that you don’t need a title to speak your truths. So, what did I do this year? I found my voice.

I realized a longtime dream of becoming an author. A book I wrote nine years ago as a way to shatter bully stereotypes was now a catalyst for the work I have wanted to do on bully prevention. I used to read the story to my class on printer paper in a duo-tang folder, just to be able to share the message that even the smallest, sweetest, and smartest kids act like bullies sometimes. Through this role, I got to spread my message with author visits and workshops for kids, teachers, and parents. I always hoped to shift the conversation around bullying, and with Diary of a Real Bully, I know now that it is something I will do long after this role ends. So, what did I do this year? I found my passion.

I visited schools. I talked to students. I listened to teachers. I met incredible educators from all around the world. I connected with others and grew a network of the most genuine, passionate, dedicated, creative, and inspiring people that I’ve ever known. I gained knowledge and strength and motivation with each encounter, and I know now that we are all in this together. So, what did I do this year? I found my team.

I noticed a lack of teacher perspective in the places it is needed most. Determined to change that, I expressed the importance of teacher leadership to anyone that would listen. I rallied for more opportunities for teachers that are anxious to break through the walls of their classrooms and extend their reach. I shared ways to elevate this great profession and helped educators think like leaders. I was always grateful to those that saw my potential and lit a fire within me, and I know now that I can do that for others. So, what did I do this year? I ignited the flame.

I held a seat at the table during State Board Meetings. I testified before the House Education Committee. I engaged in dialogue with representatives of the U.S. Department of Education and the Foreign Domestic Policy Council. I worked with incredible organizations that support teachers and want to move education forward.  I started conversations about what needs to change. I offered solutions that will help to change them. I always felt like teachers should have a say in decisions, but I know more than ever it is our responsibility to make our voices heard. So, what did I do this year? I made an impact.

Did I mention I met the President of the United States? That was definitely a pinnacle moment in this experience.

This year was much more than an opportunity to have a title. It was a chance to push myself, try new things, take risks, and to re-shape my beliefs about education and the role I want to play in it. It was a chance to see the teaching profession for what it truly can be - a gateway for change.

The question I get most often now is, “What will you do next?”  Well, the only thing I know for sure is that my work has just begun. I am, however, swirling with hopes.

I hope we solve education’s problems by looking to educators for answers. I hope we revolutionize the profession by giving teachers endless opportunities to explore, share, collaborate, and lead.  They too, should enjoy once-in-a-lifetime adventures. They too, can discover their purpose and find their voices. They too, will make an impact and influence change. It is their collective turn to be our voice and I hope to be a guiding light so that teachers -and their students- can shine.

Melody Arabo has been a third grade teacher at Keith Elementary in the Walled Lake Consolidated School District since 2002. She has a Bachelor's Degree in Elementary Education and a Master's Degree in Teaching and Curriculum, both from Michigan State University. She was named Michigan Teacher of the Year on May 15, 2014 by State Superintendent Mike Flanagan. For more information about Melody, visit: http://www.melodyarabo.com 

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