Words of wisdom from the 2021 Duval County Teacher of the Year: 'We turned 2020 into the best of times'
Jim Schmitt, 2021 VyStar Duval County Teacher of the Year, shared the following remarks after he was named the county's top teacher at the 30th Annual EDDY Awards, presented by the Jacksonville Public Education Fund.
Thank you very much for this honor. It was hard for me to think about how to prepare for something like this because as a teacher we don’t stand in the limelight and we don’t usually wait for the applause at the end of the day. All we do is wake up every morning and go to school, just like our students. But that’s the thing that makes it so special for me and that’s what makes today so special.
I’m humbled right now because I’ve been standing up here with some outstanding teachers—with brilliant stories, magical stories, that resonate through the classroom halls. And I know that I am just a reflection of so many teachers over so many years—people who have made a difference for me and helped me become what I am today. So first of all, I have to thank all our teachers and, above all, my colleagues at Mandarin High School. They are brilliant and talented teachers who are so wonderful with everything they do—people like Vicky, Kathy, Damien, Eric, Sarah, Jennifer—people who believe that teachers teaching teachers matters. We have done so much for such a long time together—they have to be celebrated above all.
I have to thank the leaders who have guided me—my mentors—leaders like Dr. Greene, who was a stabilizing hand on our shoulders in such a difficult time; we knew that we had the support we needed as teachers to try and do something new. And principals who I have had over 27 years of teaching, like Dr. Jim Williams at Paxon School for Advanced Studies, who taught me that intellect matters so much, but that it is not about dialing down or dumbing down what you know; rather, it’s about finding a way to scaffold for our students so they can learn even more. And that is the power of intellect. Principals like John Kniseley, at James Weldon Johnson, who showed me that a simple smile in the hall and in the courtyard could make a difference with one student one day at a time—that is something we can take with us and grow from. And principals like Sara Bravo at Mandarin, whose passion and joie de vivre resonate in every interaction she has with teachers and students. Passion, intellect, and smiles are essential in instruction and have made such a difference to me, as a teacher.
I have one more mentor that I do have to thank, and that’s my wife, Debbie, a long time principal and now a teacher at Mandarin High School. She’s made a difference for me in so many different ways but most specifically on those days when I come home and I’m so frustrated because things aren’t working. And she’ll give me a look, a smile, or sometimes a cupcake and I’ll realize that the frustration I felt and the failures I’m feeling are just the steps toward success to which I aspire. Watching her throughout her career has been a magical time for me.
I have to say a couple of other things; I have to talk about 2020 just a moment, because 2020, to pawn a phrase from Charles Dickens, was truly the worst of times. We woke up and we didn’t know what to do. But we had leadership, and we had teachers, and we had community, and that triad made the difference for us. And all of a sudden, we realized that the walls in which we teach and the hardware we deal with…that’s not what teaching is. Teaching is the passion, the intellect, and the smiles. And we added one more thing—hand-holding in times of fear— and those things mattered so much and in so many different ways. And we turned 2020 into the best of times. And that’s really what it’s been for me.
But it kind of leads to the real heroes of today—and I have to shout them out—my students. Because without them, I don’t want to get up in the morning, and I don’t need to get up in the morning to go to school. So I have to, above all, thank Naya, Janaya, Jalen, Jaden, and Jake, Anika, Alena, Anya, Alana, and Annie, Sruthi, Sejla, Spencer, Sam, and Sara, Ellie, Elie, Grace, and Hope—and every one of my students over 27 years and five and a half months—who have given so much meaning to my life. So I’m going to end today the way I begin every class— with my awkward hat on my head, and a too-bright tie, and a loud “Good morning, Best and Brightest. Thank you! Let’s have a great day.”