The Arkansas teacher of the year is back in her classroom at Van Buren High School “with tired feet and a full heart” following a whirlwind trip to Washington, D.C.
“I am ready to hit the ground running,” said Courtney Cochran after the April 22-29 trip to the national’s capitol.
Cochran, a VBHS Spanish teacher, was named the 2017 Arkansas teacher of the year by the Arkansas Department of Education. She was chosen from 14 regional finalists from the 30,000 teachers in the state.
During the Washington, D.C., trip she joined 55 teachers of the year from across the United States and its territories for the week-long program organized by the Council of Chief State School Officers.
CCSSO is a non-partisan, non-profit organization of public officials who head departments of elementary and secondary education in the U.S. states, the District of Columbia, the Department of Defense Education Activity and five U.S. territories.
“We were there to celebrate the state teachers of the year and the national teacher of the year, Sydney Chaffee of Massachusetts,” Cochran said. “We also learned about a variety of topics affecting education and met with policy makers and lawmakers to discuss policies and make connections.”
She made the trip with her husband, Amos; daughter, Maddie, 12; and her father, Larry Cook of Benton.
As teacher of the year, Courtney Cochran utilized a portion of a $14,000 grant from the Walton Foundation to pay for her trip. Her family members had to pay for their trips out-of-pocket. Cochran said Hazel’s Haven in Fort Smith and South 28th Boutique in Van Buren helped her prepare for the trip to D.C.
“It was a busy week that started on Sunday evening with a bus tour of the monuments in Washington, D.C.,” Cochran said. “On Monday, after learning about family engagement we had lunch at the Smithsonian and received valuable materials to take back to the classroom.”
Teachers also toured the National Museum of African American History, which opened last year to confront head-on America’s history of slavery and racial oppression.
“The museum gives a completely different prospective of our history, one of which I feel is important here in Arkansas,” Cochran said. “As a teacher of culture, I feel like I have to have as many perspectives as I can including American history from the perspective of African Americans.”
The 400,000-square-foot building stands on a five-acre site on the National Mall, close to the Washington Monument. The building’s three-tiered shape evokes a traditional Yoruban crown. The exterior corona is made of 3,600 bronze-colored cast-aluminum panels.
“At the end of the tour of history you walk into a room with a waterfall coming from the ceiling where you can reflect on your place in the world and your contributions to society,” Cochran said. “It is a very moving experience.”
On April 25, teachers were welcomed to the headquarters for ASCD, a global community of educators dedicated to excellence in learning, teaching and leading, for an all-day learning session.
“They literally rolled out the red carpet with balloons. The hallway was lined with people who were cheering and young children were high-fiving,” Cochran said. “It was the best way to start our day.”
Teachers on Wednesday went to the White House Oval Office where they met with President Trump and the First Lady, Vice President Mike Pence and his wife and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
“It was overwhelming to be in the Oval Office with all the history it invokes,” Cochran said. “The opportunity to be there with the other state teachers of the year was incredible. We sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to the First Lady and sang ‘Lift Every Voice in Song,’ the African American National Anthem. We made history that day.”
On April 27, the teachers visited the Department of Education to learn about a variety of programs the department offers. DeVos and the national teacher of the year also spoke. An equity and education session was led by Anna Baldwin, the 2014 Montana teacher of the year; Nate Bowling, the 2016 Washington state teacher of the year; and Tom Rademacher, the 2014 Minnesota teacher of the year and author of the book, “It Won’t Be Easy.”
That night, CCSSO hosted a black-tie gala at the Willard Hotel, formally founded by Henry Willard when he leased the six buildings in 1847, combined them into a single structure, and enlarged it into a four-story hotel he renamed the Willard Hotel.
“It was fabulous to feel so honored and empowered as well as appreciated,” Cochran said. “We heard from a variety of speakers including Sydney Chaffee and Betsy DeVos.”
April 28 was a free day for the teachers. Cochran used the opportunity to meeting with Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark.
Until the end of the 2016-17 school year, Cochran is in her classroom, giving speeches from time-to-time.
On July 1, she will be a full-time employee of the Arkansas Department of Education to travel the state in her role as teacher of the year. She will serve as a non-voting member on the state Board of Education.
Also on her agenda is a June forum on education policy in San Diego, Calif., space camp in July in Huntsville, Ala., a Next Step Conference in Princeton, N.J., in October and the college national football championship in Atlanta in January.
“I am ready to get my hands dirty and work for the kids of Arkansas,” Cochran said.