1. Do you still teach school?
I teach wherever I go, but I no longer teach in one school every day. Whenever I visit a school and talk to young people, I get the opportunity to do informal teaching. I even teach through my web site! But I am now a full time writer.
2. Why did you stop teaching to write books about teenagers?
I feel like I can reach lots more young people through the books. Even though I'm not in a classroom, I'll always be a teacher and I love working with young people.
3. How do you define yourself?
I am a teacher. It is not a job description, but a definition of who I am. I teach wherever I go-whether I'm talking at a school, or a convention, or to a group of teenagers at the mall. My entire essence revolves around "explaining" so that others can see-transferring the pictures and ideas in my mind into someone else's consciousness. I think that philosophy transfers to my writing. I'm blessed to be able to create words on paper that produce images in the minds of others-images that make them think, or wonder or feel the need to talk. I get hundreds of letters from kids who tell me how the books have touched them or made them think, or made them want to read more. It's wonderful as well as humbling.
4. Can you visit my school?
My schedule is very full, but it is sometimes possible. However, an adult must contact me to arrange for a visit. I cannot make such arrangements with students.
5. How can my teacher get me to come to my school?
There is a place on my website. Teachers have to fill out an information form and I'll try to find a date when we can make it happen.
6. How would you describe yourself as a teacher?
I have a relaxed, comfortable teaching style. I like the students and they know it. I demand the best from them, and they expect the best from me. We read literature, discuss ideas from the books, as well as from world events, and we write. I tell parents that although I cannot guarantee a Rhodes scholar by the end of the school year, I can guarantee that their child will have improved in their writing skills. My students used to ask me, "Why are you a teacher?" like that was a rotten job choice. I would tell them, "I teach because I love children, chalk dust, and challenges!"
7. What were your goals while you were teaching?
I always to try to make a difference--one child at a time.
8. How do you summarize your years of teaching?
My greatest accomplishments in education were not the plaques and awards, although those were wonderful, but the smiles and hugs and memories of children I touched all those years. I hope I made a difference in their lives.
9. Can you tell us about the famous "Draper Paper?"
(I know it's a little long, but I get lots of questions about this.)
When I started teaching seniors, I worried about how to handle them at the end of the school year. By February, if not sooner, they all had a bad case of “senioritis,” so they needed something to motivate them and direct their minds until the very last moment of the very last day of classes. Big order. Seniors want to go to the mall or the park, not the library on a warm May afternoon. So of course I figured out a way to send them where they least wanted to be--the library!
A research paper was required for seniors at our school, and most teachers did it first or second quarter to get it out of the way, but I decided to do the project, a full-length researched paper with footnotes, bibliography, and all the accompanying bells and whistles, during the last quarter of the senior year. Not only that, but the paper was to be the ONLY work of that quarter, worth over one thousand points. (The number of points turned out to be wonderfully impressive and added so much to the mystique of the assignment.)
Students, who complained noisily throughout the whole process, enjoyed moaning about the rigors of “that Draper Paper.” Each week a step in the research process was assigned, checked, and completed in class. We spent hours in the school library; we took field trips to the downtown library. We learned about card catalogs and the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, which are both now basically obsolete, and about computers and shelves and stacks and sources and citations. Gradually they moved from knowing nothing at all about their chosen subject to becoming experts in one small area of knowledge.
They went to the library on their own on weekends, working for hours diligently digging out details, in spite of the warm weather and temptation to be elsewhere. One Saturday I went down to the library and took little bags of jelly beans to every student I found working. The beamed in surprise and appreciation. I ran out of candy. Of course they all crowded downtown the following week in hopes I would show up with treats again. Of course, now, much of what they did at the library can be done online, but that experience was unique and special.
They gradually compiled their information and prepared a paper of which they could be proud. They sweated over margins and spacing and computers which ate data or typewriters whose ribbons always failed at midnight. We went over proper form for citations and they labored over every dot and comma, as well they should. Finally, the paper was due, just before prom, which was always held on Memorial Day weekend. They could relax at prom, with the major event of the semester, of the year, of their academic life, in my hands, not theirs. They felt triumphant and victorious, especially when they got their tee shirts, which I gave to them as they gave me their papers. Every year, designed by a student in a class, they received a tee shirt which proclaimed boldly, “I survived the Draper Paper!” Younger students in the school looked at them with awe and respect. They boasted and flaunted, with legitimate pride, of an awesome academic accomplishment, and made sure the younger students were properly terrified of the prospect of getting Draper as a teacher in the coming years. And so a legend was born.
The paper wasn’t difficult, it was time-coming; it wasn’t impossible, it was inconvenient for a teenager who would rather play than study. What it became was a rigorous, meaningful study that students at first dreaded, but later treasured. Many students have returned over the years to thank me, to tell me how they used the paper in college, how it helped them in later academic studies.
The Draper Paper even made national news. When I went to the White House as National Teacher of the Year, President Clinton mentioned it in his speech about me. He said that he had asked me for a tee shirt, but had been refused because he had not actually completed the paper. Headlines the next day said, “Teacher of the Year refuses to give President a tee shirt.” My mother called me and asked, “How can you refuse such a request, dear?” I had never really said he couldn’t have one, and I think he said it jokingly, but nevertheless, my class that year had a special tee shirt designed for the President and sent him a letter telling him that we were giving him one because of his dedication to educational improvement in this country.
10. Can you tell us more about how being a teacher helped you become a writer?
I’ve always encourage my students to write, whether it be stories, or essays, or research papers. Many of them were even published in various student publications. But even though I knew intuitively exactly what to do to make their writing sing, I had never taken seriously any attempt of my own to write. But one day a student gave up to my desk with a grin and a challenge on his face.
“You think you so bad,” he began, smiling, “why don’t YOU write something!”
“I just might do that,” I replied.
“Then do it!” he answered triumphantly. He handed me a crumpled application for a short story contest.
I glanced at it, took it, and told him, “OK, you’re on! I’m going to go home and do this!” He didn’t think I would, and I wasn’t sure I could, but I was ready to try. I stopped by the grocery store on the way home and in an aisle filled with green beans and applesauce I saw a young mother screaming and cursing at a three-year old child, who cowered in terror at her words. I said nothing as she left the store, still yelling at the child who looked at her with love and fear. But I couldn’t get that child out of my mind. What kind of life did he have at home? How was he treated in private when he was so abused in public? I grieved for him. Although I hadn’t planned to, when I got home that evening, I sat down to write, and two hours later I had a story. I wrote it from my heart.
I called it “One Small Torch” and I sent it in to the contest, with my students’ blessings. Two months later I received a phone call from the head of Ebony Magazine, telling me that my story had been chosen from several thousand entries, as first prize winner. I was flabbergasted. I got a check for $5000, my story was published, I got my picture in the local paper, and all of a sudden, I was a writer! Even more amazing was a letter I received from Alex Haley, (Google him, please--he's famous!) who wrote me, in his own handwriting, a letter saying how he though I had great talent as a writer. Now that was awesome! So, my students challenged, what are you going to write next?
Tears of a Tiger
was written in study hall, on weekends, before and after school and during summer vacation. It is written for high school students--on their level, in their style, about their world. It’s written for all teenagers. The characters are just ordinary kids trying to get through high school. The book does not deal with drugs or gangs or sex. It does, however, deal with parents, girlfriends, and homework. It also discusses the problems of drinking and driving, racism and teen suicide. I sent it to 25 publishing companies and got 24 rejection notices. The very last letter was a letter of acceptance from Simon and Schuster. We had a real celebration in school that day!
Tears of a Tiger
has received wonderful reviews, several national awards, and was awarded the Coretta Scott King Genesis Award, as well as being selected as an ALA Best Books for Young Adults. Amazing for a first book. Two years later I wrote the sequel, called Forged by Fire
, which is a powerful piece for young people on child abuse and survival It won the 1997 Coretta Scott King Award, as the best book published last year for young people by an African-American author. It also won several other awards, but it is close to my heart because Chapter One of Forged by Fire
is “One Small Torch,” the story that won first prize in that short story contest! My literary success has truly been a dream come true.
I have just completed my thirtieth book! What a blessing.
11. Can you tell us what it means to be named as "NATIONAL TEACHER OF THE YEAR?"
People often ask, “ So how do you get to be the Teacher of the Year anyhow?” When I first started teaching, I would not have been able to answer that question. I never had any great plans to grow up and be the National Teacher of the Year. I remember once seeing a glimpse of a teacher in the Rose Garden of the White House and wondering vaguely to myself, “How did she get to do that?” I bet I could do that, but I didn’t have the foggiest notion how. I remember also reading about a National Teacher of the Year flying in Air Force One with the President. Wow. That’s the kind of thing that happens to other people in other states. No one we know ever does wonderful things like that. Until now.
It all started very simply. It was May of 1997. The principal of my school, handed me an application, about 20 pages in length, that said on the front cover, “Ohio Teacher of the Year—1997. He said, “Why don’t you try this?” I shrugged and said, “OK, why not?” I had no notion of where that short conversation might lead. I had no grand plan. I filled out the application, which was thoughtful, required broad thinking, and good writing style.
Now I have found out since that many states do the application process quite differently. In South Carolina, for example, a local winner is chosen from every single school in every single city. The winner of the city teacher of the year is announced at a breakfast and celebrated at a formal dinner with gowns and tuxedos. Then that teacher’s application goes to the country level, where the process is repeated, then finally to the state level. All this is a wonderful idea and should be emulated. It gives a glorious opportunity for dozens of teachers to be recognized, celebrated, praised and lauded as they should be. They are given plaques, or certificates or golden apples, and they go back to their classrooms refreshed, renewed and rededicated.
But in Cincinnati, we simply fill out the application, and someone in the central office picks a candidate to go to the state competition. In ’97, they picked me. I think there were about six candidates. I got a phone call in June, telling me my application would be sent to the state. I was pleased, but I still had no sense of destiny. Shortly after school started in September, I got another phone call. I had been selected as one of the four finalists for Ohio Teacher of the Year!
On October 24, I was in the middle of sixth bell, teaching Chaucer to my seniors. The door to my classroom opened. In walks the principal, the assistant principal, several secretaries, the hall monitors, every teacher with a free bell, the superintendent of Cincinnati schools, the head of the school board, John Goff, the State Superintendent of Education, half a dozen reporters snapping photos and others with bright lights and video cameras, and my husband Larry and six of his students! Needless to say I was at a loss for words. John Goff says, “Let me be the first to congratulate you as the 1997 Ohio Teacher of the Year!” My class went wild. The kids cheered. I grabbed my face in a gesture of surprise, and lifted my arms as if to say, “Wow!” That picture, in full color, appeared on the front page of the Cincinnati Enquirer the next day, covering almost the whole top half of the front page. I drove down the street, just marveling at my picture in those little newspaper stands, over and over and over!
Everyone was so supportive and so genuinely glad for me. From the lady at the cleaners, to the man at the drugstore, to the tellers at my local bank, who all stopped what they were doing when I walked in the door, to clap and cheer, everyone felt proud to share my success. I was a part of the community and I had made them all stand tall with pride. I was overwhelmed and humbled.
Being named Ohio Teacher of the Year was plenty for me. I still had no great dreams of heading for the National competition. The Ohio Teacher of the Year is a position of great responsibility, as are each of the State Teacher positions. I would travel all over the state of Ohio, speaking to teachers and educational organizations, but would still continue teaching. It promised to be an exciting year. But the application of each State Teacher of the Year is passed on to the national office, for consideration to be National Teacher of the Year.
I was certainly no greater than any of those fine teachers, any one of whom could have been chosen. One evening in January the phone rang. It was Jon Quam, the director of the National Teacher of the Year program. He said, “I’m calling to tell you that you have been selected as one of four finalists for the 1997 National Teacher of the Year, and to ask you if would you like to accept this opportunity.” Now this was the first moment where I started to get giddy, to look to the future, to imagine the possibilities. I grinned at the phone, told him , “Yes, of course, I’d be honored,” and other sorts of correct phrases, and hung the phone up and screamed with delight.
From that time until March where the four finalists would meet the National Teacher of the Year committee, I studied, read Education Week, met with people in educational field here in town that I respected and admired, such as our Superintendent of Education, Mike Brandt, and read as much as I could about all aspects of education. For now I was not only seeking to speak for the teachers in Ohio, but for all of the three million teachers in this country. I needed to be familiar with all aspects of the educational spectrum. I wanted to be knowledgeable, secure, confident. I had to prepare a ten-minute presentation for the committee, which is made up of fourteen members of the educational community, representing the major educational organizations, such the AFT, the NEA, the National School Boards Association, etc.
I flew to Washington, DC the first week of March. For three days the four of us who were finalists were put through the pace--interviews, press conferences, dinners, videotaping, a presentation, questions about education. It was thrilling, stimulating, exhausting, and probably the best educational process I had ever experienced. They sent us home then with a promise to call us in a week or so. I came home feeling confident, but not overly so. There is just no telling what reasons that committees make decisions behind closed doors.
We had been told that if we were NOT selected as the National Teacher of the Year, we would receive a phone call from Jon Quam, the director of the program. If we WERE selected, we would receive a call from our State Superintendent of Education. In Ohio, that was John Goff. Either way, I would get a call from someone named John. All my family knew it. When the call came, I wasn’t home. My daughter Crystal, who was fifteen, answered the phone.
When I got home, I asked, “Were there any calls?’
“Yes,” she replied sweetly.
“Well,” I asked, who called?”
“Oh,” she said innocently, somebody named John called.”
“John Who?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she replied, grinning with delight. “I forgot to ask.”
Now she knew full well which John had called, but she really enjoyed making me sweat. Ten minutes later Jon Goff called and said, with real pleasure in his voice, “Sharon, once again, it is my pleasure to congratulate you. Let me be the first to say congratulations to the 1997 National Teacher of the Year!”
I didn’t scream this time. I whispered. “Really?” I asked. My face was about to burst from the giant grin on my face.
“Yes, really,” he replied. “We are all so proud of you. And by the way, you can’t tell anybody!”
Now how was I going to keep such a wonderful thing a secret? My students, my friends, my parents? The White House placed an embargo on the news, which could not be officially announced until April, when the President of the United States greets the new National Teacher of the Year in the Rose Garden. I told my family, and my parents of course, and my principal and superintendent, but the news stayed under wraps until just a couple of days before we left for Washington.
It was a glorious journey, because every step was an unplanned adventure, a new height to climb to and reach. I never planned to reach the summit of that mountain, but the view was spectacular. I knew I had so much to offer the teachers of this country, and others who didn’t know or understand the educational world as well. I was proud and ready to begin the next climb, which promised to be a full mountain range, with paths untouched and for which no map was written. But I was ready.
I got to meet the President of the United States, (Bill Clinton that year), the Vice President, the Secretary of Education, and John Glenn the astronaut that day. Here is my speech:
Thank you, Mr. President. Mr. Secretary. Honored guests.
I am so very proud to be a teacher!
I am proud of all of the students whose lives have intersected with mine. And because of that moment in time together, all of us are better. For each of them taught me as well and to them I say, I love you all.
I am proud of my colleagues--three million of us--striving to make a difference in the lives of the children.
This apple, which shines with proud intensity for all teachers, represents
As we build this wonderful bridge to the 21st century, let us remember that we will need teachers to instruct us how to build it, teachers to guide us across its intricate paths, and teachers who stand ready in the 21st century to take us to new paths and bridges as yet undreamed.
- the knowledge of the past,
- the responsibility of the present,
- and the hope of the future.
And who will walk that path? The children.
Imagine a child--any child, every child--hopeful, enthusiastic, curious. In that child sleeps the vision and the wisdom of tomorrow. The touch of a teacher will make the difference.