An unlikely journey: From marginal student to Teacher of the Year
Editor’s note: George Anderson, Iowa’s 2020 Teacher of the Year, was introduced to the State Board of Education recently. The following are his comments from the meeting. Anderson is a social studies teacher at Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids.
Hello and good afternoon. I want to thank you for hosting me and placing your faith in me and my abilities to be an ambassador for Iowa’s educators, and your vision of that education. I take great pride in the role, and will work to maintain the legacy established by past Teachers of the Year. I’d also like to thank you for your leadership and vision in our field, and I very much look forward to developing a meaningful dialogue that will positively impact education in Iowa over the course of the next year.
I can honestly say that in the last few months, since my announcement as Iowa’s Teacher of the Year and the subsequent rounds of questions from colleagues, associates, and community members I have been asked why I became a teacher more than ever in my career. When I sit back and really reflect on why I became a teacher, I have to sift through years of memories from high school through the Marines and finally into college to see that the writing has been in the tea leaves all along, I just never noticed it.
I think if I were to go back to my very first thought of being a teacher it would take me to Mr. Robert Chandler’s AP U.S. history classroom. He was the first teacher that I’d had in high school that made me feel that “a-ha” moment we talk so much about in education. I was not on the honors or AP track of courses, and had figured for most of life that upon graduation I would enter into the U.S. Armed Forces, and then get into buildings and trades if I didn’t go career in the military.
I grew up in a military family of blue collar carpenters and really the family finances or culture never made college a focal point. In high school, my dad used to tell me “boy, stay eligible for football and don’t get brought home by the police” was my main mission, and I fully embraced the mantra of “if the minimum wasn’t good enough it wouldn't be the minimum.” What I’m trying to say is that I didn't have a very academic background or interest, and if you would’ve told 16-year-old George Anderson he would be an educator – in Iowa and receive this award – he’d laugh at you.
Now that we’ve some context for my high school years I’ll get back to Mr. Chandler. Mr. Chandler had a way to relate to students, to build relationships with students of all walks. His door was never shut, he was always in the hallways – usually with a guitar and a song, and he always had time for kids. You could feel his passion for his calling, and it was inspiring. Now, my year in AP wasn’t what anyone would call an academic success in terms of grades and GPA, but I did realize that I could do hard academic tasks. I did realize that I had a love of history and historical thinking, and I had my first thought about being something other than a military man. I remember distinctly coming out of class one day and having this random flash thought “you know, I think teaching high school history and coaching some football would be a fun career.” I actually remember laughing at myself as I walked into the hall and following that thought with a hearty “ya, right.”
As the year went on, and I began to develop some academic confidence I didn’t realize I was lacking and I became very aware of my growth, and the impact Mr. Chandler had on that. That year was followed up with Mrs. Mildred Shuford in AP Language Arts, who told me that “my thinking was on par with any college student she knew, but my grammar was on par with elementary students.” She challenged me my entire senior year with readings in philosophy and Shakespeare. I found myself wading into these readings, and asking her for more. To this day I have all the books she “lent” me. Camus, Sartre, and Dostoyevsky are just a few of those authors. She told me at the end of my senior year that as I entered into the Marine Corps, to keep my books, keep reading my books, and to seriously consider college. Toward the end of my senior year I flirted with trying to get into college, but at the end of the day a Marine recruiter, the movie Heartbreak Ridge, and family history won out and I found myself en route to Paris Island, South Carolina, to begin my career as a Marine Infantry rifleman.
I learned many things about myself in the Marines, and the travel we did and places I saw woke up a sense of curiosity and desire to learn more. As a squad leader I found that I enjoyed training my squad, teaching them the skills and purpose behind Marine Warfighting Doctrine. It wasn’t just the process or how we conducted small unit maneuvers, it was the history behind where Marine leadership adopted these policies. Toward the end of my career in the Marines, despite having made sergeant and saying if I made sergeant in four I’d do four more, I found myself intensely curious about college and life beyond the military.
I didn't know it then, but what the Marine Corps provided me was an opportunity to realize passions. I loved studying history of other places, I was enamored with studying new cultures. I found I enjoyed the process of planning and instructing others, and more important when a Marine in my squad excelled or went on to leadership roles, I felt an immense pride in them and their achievements. Only later would I fully realize that this was simply what teachers inherently feel in their calling every day.
So at this point, I was flirting with the idea of being a teacher, but I wasn’t sold. After getting out of the Marines, I worked construction and got into boxing. I drifted for a bit and wound up in Iowa. Taking an elective “Intro to Teaching” at Kirkwood, we had to teach a lesson to the class. As I was into boxing, I taught the class how to wrap their hands, and brought in hand wraps so everyone could do it. As I roved around the room, inspecting hand wraps and applying corrections and why we did this I felt a level of….comfort? Familiarity, maybe? It was something that I just didn’t feel when I rolled up to the job site. Armed with this knowledge, I transferred to the University of Iowa, fully intending on going into law with a history degree (even though I knew that my heart wasn’t in it). That all ended quickly when Dr. Rand, my advisor, point blank told me that she thought public education was my calling and that I should seriously consider education. She based this on my interactions with classmates, on my experiences in life, and on the fact she thought I’d make a terrible lawyer because I was clearly not into it.
At the same time, I began coaching the junior boxing team in our club, and really enjoyed working with and building relationships with those young athletes. Of helping a young kid who had never been in a fight, develop the ability and confidence to climb into a ring. So I was in year four of my undergrad that I decided education was my path, and I jumped in with both feet and no idea what I was in for. I got accepted in grad school at Iowa, and the rest, as they say, is history.
I realize this is long winded, but I’m trying to say is that most teachers I work with knew as young children the classroom was their calling. I was lucky enough that past teachers, the Marine Corps, and experiences after the Corps lead me to it. I would even say that I didn’t really understand how much I loved teaching in my classroom until I got into it for a few years. As I developed relationships with young adults, helped kids from the same socioeconomic background as I – with them realizing that they could do hard classes, that having knowledge and reflective practice was cool, that they didn’t have to be what they thought they should be, but what they wanted to be – I realized that there was no other job I wanted to do. I had stumbled into my calling. Now I teach because I love it, but why I love it is the sense of mission, and sense of civic service, and most important, the ability to build relationships and influence youth in impactful and positive ways. I love being a mentor for so many kids whose dads aren't around. I teach because it is a job that you can tangibly see impacts to the community in former students' lives.
This realization of love of teaching has also led me to what I hope to achieve as Teacher of the Year. I have watched over the years in my career when good teachers leave the field. I’ve seen high school students who were sure they wanted to be educators switch paths. My wife, who owns her own business in Cedar Rapids, was in a local conference with a bunch of folks and found that many of the folks in the group had been classroom teachers that burned out and left the field.
As Iowa’s Teacher of the Year, I hope to work on teacher recruitment and retention. I want to work on meaningful policy and plans to entice young, passionate, and talented people to this amazing job. I hope to be a resource for college students in Iowa who are considering education, and to convince them that this job is awesome, that this job is vital to our social institutions. The other side of the coin, besides recruiting teachers is retention, I hope to work on teacher retention in our state. Why do so many able teachers leave the field? Why do so many people, whose passion for youth and making a difference are no different from my own go corporate? What can we do together, as the Iowa Board of Education, and a representative in myself for teachers in Iowa, do to keep our labor force engaged in their work?
I am not sure of the answer to many of my questions, but I have some ideas and thoughts. And I am eager to hear and learn about the work that is already being done on this and ways that I can advance that cause. I look forward to building the relationships and dialogue needed to make meaningful impacts on this issue. As the 2020 Iowa Teacher of the Year, it is my sincere hope that I am able to in some way impact our recruitment of teachers and how we retain a workforce of dedicated professionals.