A Conversation With Centennial’s 2021 Teacher of the Year

From one of the most adamantly chaotic school years of our time springs the Class of 2021. Despite the abnormalities, little has stopped them from making the most of their final year of high school. This includes the annual tradition of voting for the Teacher of the Year, an honor held by one staff member who then speaks to the entire class at graduation. This year, after weeks of calculating votes, the Class of 2021 selected English teacher Corey O’Brien. I had the pleasure of discussing this award with O’Brien on April 20. 

O’Brien has been teaching at Centennial his entire career, starting in the English Language Arts Department in 2001. Currently, he remains in that department, also teaching extensions of the subject such as Humanities and Advanced Composition. It was the latter class in which I had the opportunity to talk with him. As I sat down with him, he was as cheerful and kind as ever, cracking jokes by comparing the English department to the Chicago Bulls dynasty in the 1990s– just slightly off from the target audience, but still well received by those in the room. 

He followed this banter by reflecting on the past twenty years, in order to put life and teaching into perspective. “For as little as you know about life, that’s as little as I know about teaching,” he joked. 

After the fact, he shared his thoughts on the original nomination. 

“It’s always an honor to be nominated,” he began. “A former teacher named Bruce Smith said: ‘We’re more like farmers who only get to plant seeds, and we never get to harvest the seeds that we plant.’ It’s moments like being nominated where you get a bit of the bloom of the flowers.” 

But, given the turbulent year schools worldwide have experienced, he noted there’s a touch of irony to the subject. “In the twenty years I’ve been here, this year I’ve felt least effective at my job. But I’m not alone, around the country, it’s a struggle… It’s my only time being voted teacher of the year where it’s been a struggle.” Here he began to chuckle. “It’s debilitatingly humbling.” 

When I asked him what had stuck with him through all these years (lessons from students? from fellow staff? general memories?) Mr. O’Brien took a long pause. The room seemed enveloped in his thoughts, the other students in the room eagerly anticipating his response. 

At first, he developed a small tangent. “I went into this for selfish reasons, because I never wanted to stop learning- I figured, if that was the case, then I’ll never leave a classroom. I am not here to teach as much as I am here to learn. I learn from you all every day. Multiply that by 180 school days, times twenty [years]… It’s a lot.”

Eventually, after a minute or so of signature exasperated noises in choosing, he answered. 

“One of the strongest things that I’ve learned is that all anyone is really looking for is recognition and dignity, and to be treated with dignity– for other people to see you and say ‘who you are is allowed and accepted,’” he reflected. “Our default is to make assumptions, to discriminate in the way we see the world. But I sincerely believe that you could learn to assume that you don’t know everything. That could be the default. That’s my daily workout- to curb my assumptions.” 

At the end of our interview, I inquired if Mr. O’Brien had any words of advice for the 2021 graduating class, especially after such abrupt changes in their expectations; seniors had to curb their own assumptions about their final year of high school due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This, coupled with various forms of discrimination finally thrust into the spotlight, sometimes became understandably overwhelming. With so much uncertainty in this world, their newly nominated Teacher of the Year had only one simple sentence to say on the matter. 

“There will be a time to dance,” he said. “And when that opportunity presents itself, dance.” 


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