While clearing files on my voice recorder to make room for new newsworthy words, I came across the May 4 speech Muscogee County School District 2016 Teacher of the Year Stefan Lawrence gave during the Muscogee Educational Excellence Foundation’s annual gala in the Columbus Convention & Trade Center.
His comments are too precious to delete before reporting.
It was the farewell address for Lawrence, an English teacher at Carver High School, as his reign ended a few minutes later, when foundation chairwoman Janet Davis, the president of Kinetic Credit Union, announced Early College Academy social studies teacher Shane Larkin as the 2017 winner.
Ledger-Enquirer readers are familiar with Lawrence’s inspiring presentations. Last summer, we published a story and video taking you inside his classroom as he demonstrated what we called the “Top 5 techniques of an excellent teacher,” as explained by the 2015 MCSD Teacher of the Year, Sheryl Green, an English teacher at Jordan Vocational High School.
Then in March, we published a story and video from Lawrence’s speech to the 2017 MCSD Teacher of the Year nominees. He told them, “The national landscape is not as unified as it should be. I believe, and I truly believe, it falls on teachers to fix that.”
Now, in less than three weeks, Muscogee teachers will report back to school Aug. 1, and in less than four weeks, Muscogee students will report back to school for the first day of classes Aug. 7 in the 2017-18 school year. So amid the dog days of summer, here are highlights from Lawrence’s gala speech. May they boost your spirit as much as they did mine.
Quoting from James 3:1, Lawrence said, “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”
Then he asked, “Why is this? … Is it because they had the foresight to know the public will want to know what teachers have done to garner summers off? Or what we have done so greatly to deserve buy-one-get-one-free at Chipotle?”
Then he suggested a bold answer: “It’s because we are not only the disseminators of knowledge to our kids, but we are the disseminators of freedom.”
He admitted that might seem like an overstatement, but he offered a historical example: “Consider somebody like Frederick Douglass, a man born in captivity, who actually assaulted his slave master and ran away. But that wasn’t the instance that Frederick Douglass said he was free. If you read his autobiography further, he said the moment he became free was the moment he learned to read – at 24 years old.”
Lawrence asserted, “Education is a powerful tool that we have come to take for granted in this country, the right to go to school for free.”
A fellow teacher from Panama, he said, reminded him that “people in other parts of the world have to scratch and claw and pull resources and pick siblings who get the right to be educated. But we get it for free. And we should give it freely and passionately and without bias. That should be our challenge to ourselves every day.”
Lawrence continued, “As educators, we shape destinies. We halt life-altering, generational cycles.”
Then he offered a personal example: Both of his grandparents on his father’s side dropped out of high school. “They had 13 children, and they scratched and clawed and taught their kids values and soft skills, like respect.”
His father, Kenneth, is a physical education teacher and basketball coach at Northside High School and the only one of 13 siblings to be college educated. His mother, Marylin, is a physical therapist and the only one of five siblings to be college educated. His sister, Chelsea, earned her doctorate in physical therapy. And he is working on his doctorate in education. All four of them attended Muscogee County schools.
“We were educated by all of you,” he told the crowd of MCSD staff and supporters. “We are the product of what your hard work puts out. And we hopefully will pass that on to our kids to keep growing these generations of productive citizens.”
Lawrence referred to social constructivism, the theory that education is built on collaborative learning and shared knowledge.
“But that doesn’t work if certain things that are real and true are taboo in our classrooms,” he said. “If we’re afraid to engage our kids on real issues that they face when they leave our school building because we’re uncomfortable with the topic, you have done a disservice to those children.
“These children are ready and willing to rise to the occasion, to meet every challenge that the 21st Century has for them – social, economic, they’re ready for them – but they need to be nudged. They need the freedom to release their minds, and we have the keys to do that, but we have to take it that serious. We have to be brave enough to tackle those topics.
“There are certain kids, who, because of the way they were born, are more likely to end up in jail, are more likely to get bullied, are more likely to be discriminated against. And we have to be brave enough to talk to them about these issues and encourage them to find ways to navigate.”
Lawrence acknowledged parents have the main part of that responsibility.
“But there’s an informal contract that exists between parents and educators called loco parentis, which means, when they send their kids to us, they expect us to act in the stead for them,” he said. “They expect us to treat their kids as they would, regardless of your race or their kid’s race, your religion and their kid’s religion, your creed and their kid’s creed. They expect us to put all that aside, to table that, to do what’s in the best interest of the child. And we have to do that every day, no breaks. That’s why we’ll be judged more strictly -- because more depends on us.”