A Great Student Inspiring Great Teachers

An Unlikely Stage

Earlier this year, high school senior Aiyana Thomas was the next speaker for a room full of the most gifted teachers in the country.

“It was so nerve-wracking,” she says. “These people really knew their stuff—I didn’t want to bore them.”

She didn’t bore them.

After her speech intended to encourage them in their profession, she received a standing ovation.

Teaching as a Duty

Aiyana was invited to speak at the 2017 National Network of State Teachers of the Year national conference.

“Not only did I want to tell them that their teaching jobs were important and that they matter,” she says, “I also wanted to encourage them to see their job as a duty.”

It was an illustration of how it’s not just great teachers who inspire great students—great students also inspire great teachers.

A Schoolhouse Mentor

In middle school, Aiyana was introduced to teacher Valencia Clay.

“I didn’t think she was a regular teacher,” Aiyana says. “She did things her own way—she was a little bit kooky.”

Then the class dove into writing and art and poetry and public speaking.

“It was amazing,” Aiyana says. “She was exercising our minds.”

“She didn’t give me a voice,” she says, “Val taught me how to look at myself and learn from myself.”

(Valencia Clay originally uploaded Aiyana’s full speech to the National High School Teachers of the Year conference.)

‘A Whole Different World’

Aiyana has big plans for her future.

“I started out wanting to be a college professor,” she says. “But I also want to go to law school and I’m really interested in technology.”

“Maybe I could combine all this and work for the National Security Agency—or start my own firm,” she says. “I want to do a lot of things.”

Aiyana largely credits the teaching of Valencia Clay for her dreams.

“She introduced me to a whole different world,” Aiyana says. “She taught me I matter, I can make a difference—that my voice can make things move.”