KINGSPORT — If you think it’s hard teaching, try to become a teacher after surviving a lupus-induced stroke that left you unable to speak, swallow or blink at age 20.
Or try to negotiate Mount Vernon by yourself in a manual wheelchair or throw out the first pitch at a baseball game by putting it with your cane like a golf ball.
Those are among the activities done by Nika Maples, the 2007 Texas Secondary Teacher of the Year.
She recovered enough to walk back on her college campus. Although a planned career in broadcast journalism didn’t come to pass, she was inspired to become a teacher through her interaction with a student while doing data entry in a school office.
After four years of teaching, Maples won the statewide award. She told more than 1,500 people Friday at the third annual Straight to the Top Conference at Kingsport’s MeadowView Marriott Conference Resort and Convention Center that teachers, like stroke survivors, need to persevere.
The conference also included remarks by Jamie Woodson, president and CEO of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education; Warren Nichols, a vice chancellor for community colleges for the Tennessee Board of Regents; U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn.; and Dennis Baba, acting national director of regional operations in the Office of Communications and Outreach for the U.S. Department of Education.
In the afternoon, teachers returned to their schools for in-service, and Maples sent them on their way with a pep talk of sorts.
“Teaching is the hardest job in the world,” said Maples, one of five speakers at the event. “I want teachers to know they’re doing a good job.”
Maples hung the cane she uses to help her walk on the lectern before addressing the crowd, mostly Kingsport and Sullivan County teachers. She drew a standing ovation from the crowd and afterward sold and signed copies of her book, “Twelve Clean Pages.”
She said the title referred to her first 12 “simple” years of life, which were uneventful until she was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease in which the body in effect attacks its own organs. The years since then have been “messy but beautiful,” including losing hair to chemotherapy while still in high school and getting up in her bedroom at home one Wednesday while visiting from college and falling flat on her face after becoming dizzy.
She spent 10 days in the intensive care unit, where doctors told her family she likely would not survive and probably would remain unresponsive if she did.
Maples had laughed during her initial paralysis, but later in a regular hospital room she cried and told her mother, “I’m afraid I’ll never be happy again.”
Her mother also desperately wanted her to regain mobility but responded in a way Maples did not expect.
“If you have to move one inch in order to be happy, you never will be,” her mother said. “There will always be one more inch.”
With all the pressure and attention on teachers for student test scores and evaluations in Tennessee and across the nation, Maples recommended teachers “up to their necks in dirt and disappointment” choose to “dig for joy right here and right now.”
“What if our governments never realize our value?” Maples said. “We will dig for joy anyway.”
After telling about her visit to Mount Vernon in a wheelchair and almost taking a one-way ride into the Potomac River in it, Maples recalled why she decided to become a teacher. She was determined to visit Mount Vernon while visiting Washington, D.C., alone for the national Teacher of the Year conference.
Before becoming a teacher, she got a job working in data entry and student scheduling at a middle school office. Maples noticed a boy named John who wasn’t popular among teachers or students. He had a cornball, sometimes inappropriate, sense of humor, she said.
Maples noticed he ate lunch alone, so she began sitting with him and talking with him. Eventually, other students began to sit with him at lunch, and he made friends.
Toward the end of the year, he brought Maples a gift in a mason jar with twigs, saying three were named John, and she could name the others whatever she wanted.
She forgot about the jar until after the long holiday weekend, returning to the office to discover he had given her moths.
He later said he did that because he noticed she didn’t walk too well and thought she could use some wings.
“I had to be a teacher (after that),” Maples said.
Maples said that beyond the technology, training, professional development and in-service, education boils down to one-on-one interaction and instilling a lifelong love of learning into students.
“You don’t have to wait for funding to start making school fun again,” Maples told teachers.