It's a busy summer for Oregon's top teacher

By Chris Collins June 14, 2013 09:44 am

S. John Collins / Baker City Herald Nanette Lehman recounts her experiences visiting Washington D.C. as Teacher of the Year for Oregon.
S. John Collins / Baker City Herald Nanette Lehman recounts her experiences visiting Washington D.C. as Teacher of the Year for Oregon.

By Chris Collins

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The end of the school year hasn’t meant the end of obligations for Nanette Lehman, the 2012-13 Oregon Teacher of the Year.

Lehman’s traveling plans this summer extend way beyond moving her second-grade classroom from the North Baker campus back to the newly refurbished Haines Elementary School.

Lehman, 45, has speaking engagements and meetings to attend and in July she’ll be jetting off to Alabama for a visit to Space Camp with her fellow honored teachers.

A special highlight of Lehman’s reign as Teacher of the Year took place in April when she and the other state Teacher of the Year representatives were honored in a ceremony at the White House and a personal meeting with President Barack Obama.

Jeffrey Charbonneau, a Zillah (Wash.) High School science teacher, was named the 2013 National Teacher of the Year, and received special recognition during the White House visit.

Lehman recalled her April trip to Washington, D.C., as a “very surreal” experience. While visiting the White House, she couldn’t help but think about all the dignitaries and statesmen who had walked through the very rooms she was walking through that day. 

The teachers’ interaction with President Obama was very orchestrated, including a rehearsal of how they would line in the Rose Garden after each was personally introduced to the president in the Oval Office.

First, the teachers met in the Roosevelt Room with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who addressed the group, Lehman said. The honored teachers then were ushered through a short hallway where a man in uniform asked each of them how to correctly pronounce their names.

And, finally, they entered then the Oval Office to meet the president of the United States.

“I was so enamored,” Lehman said. “I want to go back and redo it. I have no idea what the Oval Office looks like.”

Lehman said she was impressed with how cordial the president was to every teacher waiting to be introduced.

“He wanted this to be a moment to be remembered,” she said.

The president took special note when Lehman was announced as Oregon’s representative.

“I have family in Oregon,” he told her.

Lehman responded that she was very well aware of that connection. (Michelle Obama’s brother, Craig Robinson, is the head men’s basketball coach at Oregon State University.)

Lehman told the president about her work as a second-grade teacher and how much she enjoyed teaching the children, whose brains at that age are like sponges, absorbing every lesson presented to them.

“And they think I’m a rock star,” she told the president.

Lehman recalled that President Obama agreed with her students: “You are a rock star,” he replied, and then thanked her for her service and dedication to her country and her profession.

When she told him how honored she was to  meet him, the president responded, “The honor is truly mine.”

After the brief personal meeting, each teacher then was again formally announced as he or she moved into the Rose Garden where family members were seated and the press and photographers were positioned awaiting the president.

Once everyone was in place as they had rehearsed, President Obama addressed the group, recognizing the teachers for their “compassion, commitment and dedication to children,” Lehman said. 

She was in view of the teleprompter and noted that he varied from the scripted text several times to present a personal message to the teachers.

The National Teacher of the Year was then introduced and photos were taken and the moment was over.

“It was very emotional, standing their representing the State of Oregon and the Baker School District and the president speaking to us,” Lehman said. 

Upon returning home, she says she still finds herself wondering sometimes, “Did that really take place?”

The whirlwind week, April 21-28, began for Lehman and her husband, Tracy, and the other honorees and their guests with a visit to the Newseum news museum on Pennsylvania Avenue and a tour of the monuments in the nation’s capital. 

Monday was spent touring the Smithsonian with ambassadors who demonstrated how teachers can use resources available through the various museums.

And the Lehmans squeezed in a trip to the baseball stadium to watch a Washington Nationals game.

The teachers also visited the home of Vice President Joe Biden, and although the vice president couldn’t be there, they were greeted individually at the door by his wife, Jill Biden. 

The longtime educator currently teaches at a Washington, D.C., university. Jill Biden also writes children’s books and Lehman had taken one along to have autographed during the visit. Lehman read the book to her second-graders when she returned to her classroom.

Tuesday was the meeting with the president and then Lehman and her husband were treated to a private tour of the Pentagon by a friend from high school who works there.

On Wednesday, the teachers, who each were awarded Smart Board technology, received training on how to best make use of the interactive white boards in their classrooms.

That night, the women dressed in evening gowns and the men in their best suits or tuxedos for a “teacher gala” at the Institute of Peace.

“It looked like a teacher prom,” Lehman said. “We were treated that evening as every teacher deserves to be treated.” 

Thursday they met with policy makers at the U.S. Department of Education to talk about education reform.

“They were asking our opinions and telling us how we can help our schools, our districts and our states through the training and opportunities available to us as state teachers of the year,” Lehman said.

“We are a voice,” she added. “One of our roles is to advocate for teachers, to be informed ... and to support teachers however we can.”

The teachers were given free time Friday and Saturday to continue touring on their own.

As part of their continued tour of the city, the Lehmans visited the Capitol, meeting with U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River,  and his intern, Jon Calhoun, a North Powder graduate who knows one of the couple’s sons.

Lehman said she was inspired by the week spent with the other teachers, all of whom are just as passionate about their work as she is.

“You came back so fueled and so on fire to do the best you possibly can,” she said.

Lehman’s tenure as Oregon Teacher of the Year will continue through December. In November, she will sit on the selection committee that will choose her replacement, who will take over in January.

“It was a fast-paced week full of so many emotions,” she said, recalling her experiences in Washington, D.C.

As Oregon Teacher of the Year, her expenses are paid by a private organization, which also awarded Lehman $5,000 as part of the honor.

As she looks back on the first part of her term and forward to what lies ahead, Lehman can’t believe her good fortune.

“I work with incredible teachers,” she said. “I have to ask myself, ‘why me.’ ”