As part of our observance of Teacher Appreciation Week, Leigh Cooksey, SCORE’s director of educator engagement, interviewed 2020 Tennessee Teacher of the Year Brian McLaughlin. We asked Brian about his decision to become an educator, his thoughts on earning Tennessee’s highest teaching honor, and the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

Why did you decide to become a teacher?

I had a teacher in fifth grade who told me that I could be a teacher some day. A seed was planted in my mind at that moment, and that seed was watered by many other educators who encouraged me to practice teaching math to others even getting up and teaching the class when I was still a student. 

Tell us about a student who has inspired you.

I had a student who realized that many of his friends were dealing with anxiety. He decided to bring these people together to talk through their experiences together. He eventually joined with community leaders to create a formal organization that brought in guest speakers to equip young people with skills to manage their mental health. I think we tend to be our own greatest limiting factor sometimes, but if my teenagers can do things like this student did, I’m inspired to follow suit!

What advice would you share with new educators?

Early in my career, I found ways to support what the best teachers were doing, so I could also learn from them. I think it’s important to surround yourself with people who are professional yet still vulnerable with one another. You need to be able to see great teaching and professionalism modeled from your peers but still feel like you have the freedom to tell them when you fail or feel discouraged.

What was it like being recognized as Teacher of the Year?

One of my biggest memories is how uncomfortable I felt that evening. I wasn’t used to the praise and attention. Isn’t that strange? Teachers should be very used to being honored and lifted up by their community! The experience really made me want to make sure every teacher felt as appreciated and celebrated as I did that day.

Being named Teacher of the Year is a well-deserved honor, but we know that teaching is made up of many smaller day-to-day proud moments in your classroom. Tell us about one of those moments.

I remember one of my students coming to me one day to talk about some difficult things that were happening in his life. I really didn’t know what to say. After talking for a while, I asked him if I had managed to say anything that helped him. He thought for a minute, and said, “No, not anything you said, really, but I do feel a lot better. I feel like I’m thinking more clearly. I think just the fact that you took the time to listen to me and not judge me helped more than anything.” That student did me a huge favor that day. Up to that point, I felt like I had to fix every problem my students brought to me, but that isn’t true. It’s important that I make students feel safe, love them, and listen.

The global COVID-19 pandemic is a challenging time for everyone. What message do you want to share with your fellow educators and the broader community about education right now?

We have an amazing opportunity during this time to see what things are working in education and which ones aren’t. Longstanding traditions and protocols have been shaken up and turned on their heads. This is a time to dream big dreams about learning and the structural framework surrounding it. I would encourage everyone to extract something precious from this difficult time. Begin imagining what we can do to make our educational system work in even better ways for our kids and communities.

Brian McLaughlin is a high school math educator in Hamblen County and was a 2018-19 SCORE Tennessee Educator Fellow.