I sat in an unusually quiet library staring at empty chairs before turning off the lights and locking the door. Leaving my school on March 18, 2020, took a harder toll on me than it had on any other day in my career. Facing a global pandemic was not something I was prepared for in my undergraduate education studies — or in my 27 years in education. I left unsure of how to reassure my students or how to deal with the sense of loss that I was experiencing. 

As my students walked out on what would turn out to be the final day of the school year, I gave them a challenge. I asked them to keep a journal each day of not only the history around them, but also their blessings. In the days that I have been at home during the quarantine, I have reflected on one of my blessings — my time spent in education and the many reasons why I am fortunate to be a teacher in Tennessee.

Teachers are empowered in Tennessee. Tennessee offers many opportunities for teachers to serve as leaders. According to the Tennessee Educator Survey, 87 percent of teachers either agree or strongly agree that they are encouraged to participate in leadership roles in their schools. In addition, 81 percent of Tennessee teachers who have demonstrated effectiveness in teaching have opportunities to lead instructional improvement efforts in their schools. 

There are also many opportunities to serve as leaders outside of our school walls. Some of my greatest growth moments both personally and professionally have arisen as a result of the Tennessee Teacher of the Year Program. The time that I was fortunate to serve on the Teacher Advisory Council for the Tennessee Department of Education, as well as my time spent as a Tennessee Educator Fellow with SCORE, have taught me the importance of being knowledgeable of education policy. More importantly, these leadership opportunities have empowered me to use my voice for the students in my district. I encourage educators to seek out the many opportunities that are available and take advantage of the difference it can make for you and your students.

Tennessee has a statewide focus on students. Since 2010, Tennessee has shown progress in student-focused policies. By raising expectations and emphasizing student outcomes, policymakers and teachers in Tennessee have enabled more students to achieve at higher levels. Our rigorous standards in Tennessee set the expectation that all students are prepared for success, regardless of their district, geographic region, or family’s socioeconomic status, which was evidenced by our fast improvement on the nation’s report card. Personally, I have seen the benefits of rigorous standards in my students’ academic conversations, as well as in their improved thinking and writing skills. As a Tennessee educator, I am proud of our all means all mentality and what it means for our students. 

Tennessee teachers are rock stars. If not everyone realized this before the COVID-19 crisis, then it is clearly evident now. In the shadow of a global pandemic, teachers in Tennessee have transformed our method of instruction and communication. In a matter of weeks, we have mastered Zoom meetings, Google classrooms, and various methods of distance learning. We have faced obstacles and provided strategies with creative ideas at lightning speed. We have fed our students, devised plans for those with no internet, and shared our love for our students through letters, emails, and videos. Even during a “normal” school year, our work is challenging. Through this crisis, we have shown our willingness to adapt and overcome for the benefit of our students. 

To my fellow Tennessee teachers, I know our jobs our tough – now so more than ever.  But I hope, like I encouraged my students to do on our last day of school in our building, you will spend a portion of your quarantine time reflecting on the many reasons that we are blessed to be teachers in Tennessee, and I challenge you to seek out opportunities for leadership and growth in our state. If you are a parent or member of the community, I encourage you to reach out to Tennessee teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week (May 4-8) and thank them for all they do for our students.

Carol Nanney is a librarian at McKenzie High School and a 2019-20 SCORE Tennessee Educator Fellow.