Brian Grimm's calendar for the past 12 months is a jumbled mix of speeches, public appearances and dinners -- much different than his schedule a year ago when the teacher was busy grading papers and teaching English at Will Rogers High School. As Oklahoma's Teacher of the Year for 2010, Grimm has added close to 43,000 miles on the Toyota Prius awarded to him as part of his prize package traveling across the nation as the state's "Ambassador of Teaching." One of those trips included an invitation to hang out and grab a few beers at a new acquaintance's house -- Vice President Joe Biden.
"(Biden) and his wife caught me stealing their napkins," Grimm said laughing. "I had to -- they had the coolest vice presidential seal on them. I was putting them in my pockets and in my shoes, anything I could do to get as many napkins as possible.
"Then (Jill) Biden said, 'Are you taking my napkins?' and I said, 'Yes, Mrs. Biden, but if you come to my house, you can have anything you want.'"
Luckily, Grimm was not tackled by secret service agents and was able to go on and have what he describes as an incredible year representing the state as Teacher of the Year. Now, as his reign comes to a close after Elizabeth Smith from Byng public schools was announced as the 2011 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year, Grimm is able to look back on the highlights of the last 12 months.
After being awarded the title last September, Grimm said goodbye to his students and hopped on the road, telling future and current teachers about best teaching practices, speaking with civic organizations about education in Oklahoma, and explaining to business leaders why relocating to Oklahoma is a good choice.
"I went up and down the turnpike so much that all I had to do was say, 'This is Brian' when I got to the McDonald's on the turnpike and they knew to have my McChicken, large Dr. Pepper and ice cream cone ready," Grimm joked. "I can't tell you how many times I've driven around a small town trying to find their high school and being told to look for the water tower to find the school below. I've gone to exotic locations like Ninnekah and Gotebo."
Grimm also got the opportunity to meet with other state teacher of the year winners on a weekly basis. Exchanging ideas with these teachers while also visiting local teachers and administration reminded Grimm of the reasons why people enter into the profession.
"Teachers go into this profession because they want to be successful," he said. "No one says, hey, I'd like to sign up for low-pay and abusive students. They go into it because they think they have the capacity to change the world, they have the capacity to help young people grow and develop in incredible ways."
Grimm, who previously taught at several school districts in Texas, knows and understands this passion well, but just a few years ago after moving to Tulsa and beginning his teaching career at Will Rogers High School, the young teacher was ready to step away from the classroom for good.
After graduating from Sapulpa High School and receiving his bachelor's degree from the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, Grimm settled in as a teacher in Clear Lake, Texas. The school, which sat across the street from NASA, included children whose parents had master's degrees with a median income in the area of $90,000.
Grimm found out quickly after moving to Tulsa in 2004 that teaching at Will Rogers High School would be a much different experience.
"I made it until March and then turned my keys in," he said. "I drove all the way home thinking I'll work at McDonald's or Barnes and Noble, but I'm never going back. When I got home, my house key was on the set of keys I turned in, so I had to go back."
That summer, Grimm dedicated hours toward reworking his plan of connecting with his students. He watched webinars and read books, diving into various ways to reach kids in low-income areas. And others at the school were ready to see a new connection with the students as well.
"A core group of us decided we not only needed to change the classroom, but the campus as a whole," Grimm said. "Our campus underwent a revolution."
That revolution resulted in an almost 50 percent reduction in suspensions and a 33 percent reduction in referrals.
Academics also improved substantially, with the school that once placed last in the district's algebra test scores moving up to third. The school's three-year average state English test score of 365 also skyrocketed to 1069 in a single year, Grimm said.
To do this, a change in adult behaviors had to take place first, he said.
"We know that students from poverty come from homes where they hear negative admonitions more times a day then they hear positive reinforcement," he said.
So teachers began building positive relationships with students before focusing on negative behaviors, Grimm said.
"If you don't build those relationships with kids, you're ignoring 90 percent of whatever problem you're facing in the classroom," he said.
After building these relationships for years at Will Rogers High School, Grimm found it difficult to step away from his first passion last year after winning -- his students. But it also enabled him to create new relationships, which comes with great ease for Grimm. However, one person the teacher met along his journey evoked a great deal of nervousness.
When Iowa's Sarah Brown Wessling was announced as the national teacher of the year on April 29, all the other states' Teacher of the Year winners were invited to visit the White House, allowing these winners to step into the Oval Office and meet the president. When President Barack Obama asked Grimm to tell him about Tulsa, the nervous Oklahoman began spewing nonsense about his excitement over meeting the president, Grimm said.
"He said, 'Brian, calm down. Let's start again,'" Grimm said of the president.
After calming his nerves, Grimm said he found the president to be charismatic.
"I look down halfway through, and I have my hand around the president's waist like it was a fraternity party," he said laughing.
Although charismatic himself, Grimm said he admits the change of scenery out of the classroom had him stumped at times.
"I'm so used to addressing 14-year-olds with braces and then all of a sudden I'm at a black tie dinner," he said. "The first big dinner I had was very formal and I was so nervous about which fork to use and if my napkin was in the right place. At the end, I got up to go get some cookies and brownies and someone said, 'What are you doing?' and I said, 'I'm just getting dessert.' That's when I learned they were supposed to be auctioned off for the children."
The past year has not been all about stealing napkins and treats, however. Grimm said he has learned through conversations and continues to trade ideas with other Teacher of the Year winners. Through many of these conversations, he found that Oklahoma might be on its way toward moving to the front of education reform.
"It's amazing what's happening in Oklahoma compared to other states," he said. "At the federal level, with Race to the Top and all the money they're throwing at education, everyone is jumping on the reform bandwagon. In Oklahoma, we formed the bandwagon. We started early."
To ensure successful reform, however, Grimm said teachers must speak up.
"My prayer for teachers in the next couple of years is that they realize they have a voice, that action and advocacy is what's going to change our industry to benefit students," he said. "As teachers, how dare we accept that a senator or representative says they support education without asking them what that looks like in my classroom, how it affects student achievement, what it looks like on my campus, where does the money come from and where is it going."
With this passion to see Oklahoma students excel, Grimm plans to continue doing curriculum instruction for Tulsa Public Schools. After all, he said, he cannot see himself doing anything else.
"It's the best profession in the world," he said.
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