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  • Writer's pictureShawn Sheehan

That Time I Interviewed for National Teacher of the Year

It’s 4:30 a.m.,

and I hear notes on a xylophone being played. It feels festive, like I’m expecting to wake up in a resort with a talented xylophone player standing on a patio, rhythmically tapping away on the keys. Not quite — I confirm with my phone that I am actually awake. I showered and shaved the stubble on my face last night, but I have nervous energy and I head for the warm steam of another shower to melt it away.

It’s 5:20 a.m.,

and I grab my backpack equipped with my favorite suit. I mentally run through each item I will wear for tomorrow’s interviews: Toothbrush and toothpaste? Check. Phone charger? Yes. I feel around in my backpack and find my State of Oklahoma pin. I’ll need that. I kiss my lovely wife softly, trying not to wake her. It’s Sunday, and she deserves to sleep in before she tackles that stack of papers she needs to grade. Half-awake, she tells me she is proud of me and everything I’ve done. I tell her I love her and will see her in less than 48 hours. One last check for my phone and wallet, and I’m out the door.

It’s 7:15 a.m., and the jet roars as it lifts off the runway at Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City. I mistakenly chose a granola bar over a more hearty breakfast, and I’m feeling the effects of the ascent in my gut. The flight attendant asks what I would like to drink and I ask for ginger ale, hoping it will calm my stomach. The only time I ever drink ginger ale is thousands of feet in the sky. The Beats headphones over my ears are the best investment I’ve made recently. They block out the screaming toddler a few rows back and comfort me with The Weeknd’s latest album. His voice is so serene and perfectly accompanies his nihilistic lyrics. “I can’t feel my face…”

It’s 4:50 p.m., and I’ve lost track of the day. I’m in the lobby of the St. Gregory Hotel in Washington, D.C., exiting the elevator and looking for three others in the hotel lobby. There they are! The state teachers of the year from Connecticut and Washington — fellow finalists for National Teacher of the Year. (Or, as I know them: Jahana and Nate, respectively.) We shake hands and embrace, happy at the sight of each other. I grab a seat at the high table. Daniel, California’s 2016 Teacher of the Year and the last of this quartet of finalists, arrives shortly after. There’s a nervous energy in the air. What are we doing here? Literally, we’re waiting on Emily from CCSSO to pick us up for dinner, but that’s not what I mean. I mean, what has happened to place the four of us one day away from interviews that will determine who will hold the National Teacher of the Year title? None of us is sure, but it feels like there’s an unspoken agreement that tonight, we’re just going to try and relax, enjoy the dinner and sort it out tomorrow.
It’s 9:30 p.m., and I have three notecards in my hand. We have been tasked with giving a five-to-seven minute keynote speech as part of tomorrow’s NTOY selection process. My notecards only have words and phrases. I’m not a script kind of guy — I prefer talking points. I know I’ll fill in the details when the time comes. I feel like a musician working hard to get a record deal. I’ve been working on this for a while. It’s not that I’ve been trying to “make it,” so to speak. It’s just that I really do want the title because I know what it means to my teacher family and teachers like me across the country. The inner dialogue has run amok again. Focus, Shawn. Say it all again but clean it up. I restart the timer on my phone. Go.

At 9:30 a.m. on Monday morning, I tighten my necktie and straighten my shirt and coat. Jahana just finished her round of interviews with the committee, and I’m up next. I remember who I am and where I’m from. I tell myself to stay focused and make sure I answer the question. Sometimes I get off topic and don’t circle back to the question. I need to be concise. I feel good. I enter the room and sit at the head of the group. First question...

At 10:15 a.m., the interview is a wrap. I’m confident that I’ve answered the questions to the best of my ability, but I couldn’t get a read on the committee. There were at least two questions I think I stumbled on a bit, but what’s done is done. Back to the waiting room with the rest of the crew. I love this group. The conversation we have in the waiting room is authentic. It’s like a meeting of the minds. Each of us has a backstory, and it’s more powerful than you’d know. I love getting tidbits of who each of us really is. We talk shop, but we also talk family, basketball, movies and life in general. We’re all simultaneously nervous, uncertain, confident and eager. And we’re hungry. When’s lunch?

At 10:30 a.m., I’m ushered into another room with some of the great folks at Voya Financial. We will be doing a video shoot with them and supporting their social media campaign. The cameraman puts some makeup on me to make my face shine less. It’s the first time I’ve ever had makeup on. Feels cool, I guess. The lights are bright, and for this interview, there is no judgement. It’s not part of the evaluation, so I’m at ease and find myself back in my comfort zone, talking about teaching.

At 2:30 p.m., we’re slightly ahead of schedule, and I’m on deck. The schedule was randomly assigned, and although I was the second to do panel interviews this morning, I’m last to deliver a keynote speech this afternoon. I walk in with confidence and offer three action steps on the topic at hand. I feel good, but I’m still unable to get a read on the committee. Thus far, every speech I’ve given back home has been followed by applause. But not this one. Barely a head nod. I thank them for their time and exit the room as the committee members jot down notes. They will deliberate and make their selection in the minutes that follow.

At 4:50 p.m., I excuse myself from the group interview with EdWeek. We just finished an interview with Politico that ran long, and I need to get to Reagan International for my flight. I make my rounds and shake hands with the wonderful people at CCSSO and a handful of committee members who lingered for the closing celebration. I catch an Uber with two of my friends from Voya and try to decompress. The day has been a blur. I’m not sure if what I had to say is what they were looking for, but I did what I do, and that’s the best I can do. What stands out the most in my mind is how much I admire and respect my fellow finalists. Any of us would be the best choice. We’re all on the same wavelength, and we all want what’s best for kids. We love what we do, and we’re pushing for change in various ways. I feel like part of an all-star team. An MVP will be selected, but we’ve all won. We won for our states and our schools. The country knows our names, and I’m certain they’ll be hearing more of us along with our fellow state teachers of the year.

At 11:35 p.m., my flight touches down at Will Rogers World Airport. It’s been less than 48 hours since I last passed through this terminal. Exhausted, I think to myself, is this really what I would want to do for another year? Absolutely. I reach for my phone and navigate to the alarm. Xylophones off.
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