Sarah Brown Wessling
English (Grades 10-12), National Teacher of the Year
#1 Teacher Top 5: Know Your Students
Sarah “sees the world in stories.” So when it comes to her students, there are two stories to discover: who they are as a person; and who they are as a learner. By knowing your students, connections can be made and teachers can understand how best to guide their learning.
As a person, it is important to know who that student is. For instance, how many siblings does he or she have? What does he or she like to do with his or her free time? What is his or her passion? Teachers must have the curiosity and desire to know each student. Every pupil has his or her own story and motivations. It is a teacher’s job to know his or her students, and to know them well.
As a learner, it is imperative to understand how each student processes information. In doing so, it guides the teacher. For instance, what kind of feedback does the student respond best? Sarah believes that learning is more about the process of learning, and less about getting the right answer. She stresses, “It’s about figuring out how we learn; how we become thinkers.”
Elementary Education (Grade 3), National Teacher of the Year Finalist
#1 Teacher Top 5: You Must Reach Them Before You Can Teach Them
All excellent teachers know how important it is to establish solid student-teacher and parent-teacher relationships. Jason declares, “In this age of instant connectivity, it’s easy to lose the power of the personal touch.” The value of human connections is still very important, even though technology has enhanced and facilitated communication. That’s why Jason takes the extra time to make phone calls and write personal handwritten notes. “Communication is a lost art and people want to know they matter; you care about them and their students,” says Jason. Prior to the start of school, Jason details, “I would…send post cards to the families over the summer that describe a little bit about what third grade would be like. At pre-open house, I’d have a science fair board with a picture of me on it from when I was in third grade so the kids can see that I was just like them, and a part of the same learning process.”
The result from this ongoing relationship building is a foundation of trust to begin learning. Jason says, “Take the time to establish relationships and trust early on…when your kids come in those first few days, it becomes all about building upon those relationships as opposed to creating new ones.” Teachers must understand each student’s background, what he or she loves to do, and what makes each student tick. By doing so, connections can be cemented to make success come to life for every pupil. Jason comments, “That often used saying, ‘You have to reach them before you can teach them,’ is very much the case.”
Humanities and History (Grade 11), National Teacher of the Year
#1: Teacher Top 5: Preparation
According to Philip, preparation is one of the most important secrets for successful teaching. No matter what grade level or subject taught, teachers need to be well-prepared and must know their subject-matter intimately. This may mean a core competency based on past academic studies or it could simply mean having a deep knowledge of the subject from research and planning. Either way, teachers must have a strong agenda for what they will be teaching. Philip states, “Students have the most respect for educators who have an in-depth knowledge of their content.”
Along the same lines, teachers need to be ready to teach once class is in session. Time is a teacher’s most valuable resource and instruction should begin right away. Philip asserts, “A typical 50-minute class often is reduced to less than 30 minutes of quality instructional time by too many teachers and this is unacceptable.” Teachers must convey to their students that they are ready to begin instruction immediately when the class bell sounds. Philip states, “Start into what you’re doing and have high expectations [of your students].” For that reason, teachers need to plan out their day strategically to take utmost advantage of class time.
Social Living, U.S. History, Women’s Studies (Grades 9-12), National Teacher of the Year
#1 Teacher Top 5: Competence, Competence, Competence
In many ways, students learn only as much as a teacher can teach them. Thereafter, it is up to the teacher to guide them independently so that students can meet and exceed their full potential. Myrra believes that teachers must know their subject-matter intimately. They also need to think deeply how to present material effectively to reach every student. Myrra states, “Teachers must understand that people learn in different ways. Male brains are different from female brains.” That is why Myrra advocates Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences Theory. It articulates that there are differences among individuals in the way they learn, and identifies strengths that each person may possess. The challenge, of course, is to figure this out for each pupil. Therefore, educators need to know their students well. On the whole, teacher competence is quite broad. At its most base level, it encapsulates attributes from subject-matter expertise, recognizing different learning styles, practicing Multiple Intelligences Theory, delivering instruction effectively, and knowing students so well that optimal learning takes place.
U.S. History and Psychology (Grades 10-12), Connecticut State Teacher of the Year
#1 Teacher Top 5: Make a Lifetime Commitment to Becoming a Better Teacher
All too often after years of teaching, routine can set in and the status quo can be quite comfortable. Burt encourages educators to better themselves each year. He says, “Try to do a little something every year to improve your skills.” This can take many forms, but meaningful professional development that is subject-based and usually takes at least a week are the best. Burt states, “Much of [in-service training] isn’t great…and one shot, two-hour sessions are rarely helpful. Summer institutes that go for one week can be very good.”
The key, though, is finding professional development opportunities that not only resonate with a teacher’s interest, but is also something that can improve his or her skills. Burt differentiates between subject-matter and instructional training. In his experience, all of the worthwhile continuing education has been to improve subject skills. Burt comments, “Having professional development with people who know a lot more about a subject than I do is very, very helpful.” Instructional training, on the other hand, can be lackluster. Burt believes that most teachers figure out a teaching style that works for them. Hence, professional development should be targeted to enhance subject skills. Some of Burt’s most rewarding professional development experiences include his work at the Yale School of Medicine, where they helped develop skills to teach human sexuality; University of Massachusetts in International Relations, where he learned about languages and world culture for a magnate program; and Trinity College, where he studied African American literature.
Elementary Education (Grade 3), District of Columbia State Teacher of the Year
#1 Teacher Top 5: Invest in Parent Interaction
As a business major in college, Jon sees parents as consumers and education as the product. That explains why Jon wants parents to know as much as possible about their children’s education. That way, parents will be willing to invest themselves as parent-teacher partners and engage actively in the school. Parent buy-in is paramount to ensure that what is taught by the teacher in class is reinforced by the parents at home. Jon recommends, “Get parent involvement early. If messages are different (between teacher and parent), it is harder for the teacher to accomplish the goals that are needed to be successful.”
To establish this relationship, Jon communicates all policies clearly via a comprehensive, outlined document that is brought home by students and signed by parents. This syllabus style document stipulates: what will be studied; what are the academic expectations; what is expected of students (how the act, speak, walk, etc.). At the beginning of the year, Jon also presents an informative "Back to School Night" presentation which provides an overview of the academic year. Throughout the school year, Jon sends home a weekly newsletter which includes academic updates, classroom happenings, and parent volunteer opportunities. Jon often calls home to talk to parents about his students. He points out, "It is important to call about positive things, not only negative."
Language Arts, Forensics (Grade 7), National Teacher of the Year Finalist
#1 Teacher Top 5: Build Relationships
From her own experience as a student and a teacher, teaching is not simply about delivering instruction, covering curriculum, and preparing students for tests. Rather, it is about building strong relationships to educate the whole child. Angela declares, “The only way to know each child is to develop relationships. Some people see this as ‘fluff’…but without relationships, lifelong learning cannot take place….Relationships and connections are the single most valuable use of a teacher’s time.” By building relationships, students feel that they are valued and heard. As a result, Angela exclaims, “They’ll exceed your expectations of them every single time.”
So how does Angela build relationships? There are three steps. First, it is vitally important to know each student not only academically, but also personally. Student interests, personal goals, biggest fears, and idiosyncrasies all fall into the personal attribute category. Next, the first homework assignment is actually for the parents. As an ‘informative assessment,’ parents are asked to write about their child in one million words or less. This provides Angela a tremendous amount of information to who the child is from a parent perspective. Lastly, Angela conducts plenty of “Get to Know You” activities. This is then followed up throughout the year with active listening, deep discussions, and collaboration.
Math (Grade 8), National Teacher of the Year Finalist
#1 Teacher Top 5: Be Real
This is the core tenet of Alex’s teaching philosophy and is broken down into three levels. First, it’s vital to “Be Relevant.” Students need to know that what they are learning is relevant to their everyday lives. Therefore, making connections is imperative. Secondly, teachers must “Be Reliable.” This includes starting class on time as well as running it efficiently and in an organized manner. Alex emphasizes, “Demand from students what YOU are.” Lastly, all teachers must “Be Realistic.” While many people may desire students to pursue traditional careers, educators must have a greater understanding of their students. Alex says, “Perhaps not everyone of my students is going to be a doctor, a lawyer, or even go to college, but everyone of them is going to be a co-worker, a neighbor, and a friend.” Realistic expectations must exist and students ought to be accepted for who they are, while continuing to push toward who they can become. Alex adds, “[E]ducators can invoke in our students compassion, equity, and the determination of a better world.” That is the crux of a teacher’s responsibility.
Biology, Anatomy, Environmental Science (Grades 9-12), Alabama State Teacher of the Year
#1 Teacher Top 5: Be a Role Model for Your Students
Yung is a strong believer that “education can empower others.” By acting as a positive role model, teachers have the unique opportunity to influence students so they can visualize, and then fulfill, their potential. In her first year of teaching, Yung recalls a student whom she helped change. Earlier, the student had a reputation for not only being difficult, but also physically destructive. When the student took Yung’s science class, something clicked. In her classroom, Yung often shared her own story. She did so to let students know that hardships and adversity can be overcome. In time, the student started putting forth strong effort and even began to like science. Yung recollects the student saying, “I’ve always hated science. This is the first year that I like it. And, that’s because of you. Everything I do, I do for you. I try hard, study, and try to make good grades.” While Yung was flattered, she shared with the student, “Great. But do it for yourself. Don’t do things in life for someone else. And, the first thing you need to do is to improve yourself.” That resonated.
Talks between teacher and student may seem so simple. However, its lasting impact can be tremendously significant. In high school, especially, Yung believes, “Students need someone to listen. Not belittle. Guide them so they can see there is something else – alternatives – from their current path.” In other words, be a caring role model. As for the student who was in her science class, she ended up becoming Yung’s lab assistant the following year. She is now attending a major university with aspirations of becoming a mathematician.
Social Studies (Grades 9-12), Vermont State Teacher of the Year
#1 Teacher Top 5: Have a Passion for Teaching and Content
While this may seem obvious, it should not be overlooked. Anyone intending to enter the teaching profession really needs to make sure they love to teach young people. Craig asserts, “A successful teacher needs to love teaching to the point where they are willing to do whatever it takes to engage their students and help them learn. Being passionate about teaching is really about motivation and dedication to your job as an educator. It is knowing that teachers have a tremendous responsibility in helping young people learn about the world, about who they are, and to realize their potential.” Teaching is not simply an 8am to 3pm job.
The other aspect is enjoying the content area taught. Craig states, “I have a strong passion for teaching the field of history, and I have seen how this has had a positive impact on students reacting to my energy and excitement in class in a positive manner.” Needless to say, enthusiasm and passion are infectious. That is why Craig also believes that it is important for students to see that their teacher enjoys being at school. A teacher cannot expect students to show a love for learning, if he or she does not demonstrate it.
English Language Arts (Grades 5-6), Minnesota State Teacher of the Year
#1 Teacher Top 5: Do Whatever It Takes
All students learn differently and many of them have schedules that do not coincide with that of their teacher. For this reason, Lee-Ann believes in “do[ing] whatever it takes to ensure the success of [her] students.” At the very beginning of the school year, Lee-Ann gives her personal cell phone number to the class. That way, students can reach her as needed. Lee-Ann remembers a student whose mother could not help with homework, because she had intellectual disabilities. Lee-Ann allowed this student to call her every night for help with homework. She asserts, “My response as a teacher is to do whatever I can to help her succeed. If it meant talking to her every evening, I’m going to do that.” In addition, Lee-Ann often gives up weekends to assist her students. Many of her high school students cannot meet with Lee-Ann during regular school hours due to schedule conflicts. As a result, Lee-Ann hosts study groups on Sundays in order to ensure student success. She comments, “If it means nights or weekends, I do it. I adjust my schedule to meet their needs.”
Chemistry (Grade 11), Rhode Island State Teacher of the Year
#1 Teacher Top 5: Know and Respect the Culture of Your Students
Different cultures comprehend learning in their own way. Therefore, it is imperative to keep learning authentic so that students can see its relevancy. George states, “Every lesson should impart to students the knowledge that they can use in their lives as soon as they leave the classroom.” This student-centered approach puts students first, not the lesson. For instance, teaching a lesson on density must be performed differently depending on the constituents. Students from Massachusetts will construe and internalize the subject-matter of density differently compared to school children in a Navaho Indian community in a desert location of the Southwest.
George asserts, “The point here is that one lesson based around one set of content can never be relevant to all classrooms. Lessons can only be determined by the culture of the classroom and this should be evaluated by individual school systems, teachers, and administrators with the major value coming from the opinion and knowledge of the teacher in whose classroom the lesson will be presented.” George continues, “The issue is to teach students what they can perceive as valuable in their learning.”
Earth Science (Grades 11-12), Alabama State Teacher of the Year
#1 Teacher Top 5: Promote High Expectations
On the first day of school, Pamela always communicates to her students that they are going to be challenged to ask questions and figure things out. “Learning is about being pushed beyond your regular abilities,” asserts Pamela. She continues, “You must believe that all students deserve to be pushed to their highest level of achievable mastery. Every student deserves a chance toward future success. High expectations provide the doorway.” Oftentimes, when a teacher has high expectations of his or her students, they will not only meet their full potential, but also exceed them.
In order to guide students to the next level, Pamela pre-assesses throughout the year to determine what her students know. Formal assessments also follow. For Pamela, her favorite thing to hear from students is, “Mrs. Harman, I learned something new today.” She explains, “That is how it should be in every classroom.”
English (Grade 6), Delaware State Teacher of the Year
#1 Teacher Top 5: Always Be 100% Prepared When Students Arrive in the Classroom
One of the central tenets for successful teaching is making certain that everything is prepared and set to go. Joe asserts, “Everything is on the board. Everything is setup. I’m not finishing up. I’m not grading papers. Teachers should be completely ready. Teachers are there for them [students].” Even before instruction begins, he can answer questions, build rapport, and observe student dynamics. This fosters a sense of confidence from teacher to student and creates a culture of strong competence. Joe states, “When students arrive in my classroom, I’m 100% theirs.” For teachers who have difficulty with this, Joe suggests, “Get to school early.” Teaching is an awesome responsibility and students should not be treated less than they deserve.
Agriculture (Grades 9-12), West Virginia State Teacher of the Year
#1 Teacher Top 5: Care About Your Students
Quite simply, students have to know that the teacher genuinely cares about them. Jason says, “The reason to why it’s important is because kids know a fake when they see one. When they know that you sincerely care about where they’re going in life, they end up wanting to work harder for you as a teacher.” Teachers can demonstrate their care by doing things beyond the classroom such as attending after-school activities and accepting student invitations to family events. “Becoming a part of their life through extracurricular activities really makes a difference,” claims Jason.
Treating students like adults and with respect goes a long way. If a teacher is successful in developing a strong student-teacher relationship, former students will keep in touch long after they graduate. Jason shares, “Several years ago, a student who I still keep in touch with called me to ask for my advice about a job he was thinking about taking. At the end of the call, he also asked me to be the best man for his wedding.” This shows the power of connections and the impact teachers have on young people.
English Language Learner (Grades 7-8), Massachusetts State Teacher of the Year
#1 Teacher Top 5: Get to Know Your Students and Their Worlds
If students do not connect with their teachers, Wilma believes that the curriculum of any course will not make sense. She states, “Learning is about relationships and interactions with ‘texts.’” Humans, in this case, are the texts. Wilma continues, “We embody the world….As we engage with each other, and get to know each other, we learn to interact with written and academic texts.” This student-teacher connection is critical, especially when teachers hold influence in the classroom. Wilma comments, “We transmit our passion and love for learning. Students have to feel that way [too] and it happens in connection with the adults.” That is why the teacher must make a tremendous effort to get to know everyone.
To build relationships, there are plenty of activities by which to do so, including basic data gathering techniques via questionnaires as well as student and teacher shares. In her class, Wilma enjoys performing an activity called Free Topic which is done once per week. Here, students talk to each other and communicate with the class what they did over the weekend. Wilma states, “You’d be surprised how revealing it is.” She also tasks students with personal narrative writing which often uncovers personal values, beliefs, experiences, and things that are closest to their hearts.
Theater (Grades 9-12), Alabama Teacher of the Year
#1 Teacher Top 5: It is Our Children’s Education, Not Ours
“It’s very important for students to know what’s happening and why they’re doing and approaching things a certain way,” says Roy. That way, “Students can say, ‘Oh, I get it. This is why we’re doing this.’” As a teacher, Roy tries to share as much as he can with his students. He states, “We must involve them in every aspect of the educational process so that they understand that they have a level of control for what and how they learn.”
Every student’s education must also be tailored to fit his or her needs. Having taught English, literature, and writing as well as theatre, Roy is known for creating an individualized plan for each student. He declares, “It’s not as hard as it sounds. For example, if a student in my writing class is a whiz at grammar, but his writing lacks style or impact, then we work on style and impact. If, on the other hand, another student has remarkable writing abilities and style, but does not consistently use correct grammar, then we work on his grammar.” All students must be treated fairly, but each person has strengths and weaknesses. It is up to the teacher to evaluate and determine what each child’s strength is, and what still needs further work.
English, Journalism (Grades 9-12), NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence
#1 Teacher Top 5: Keep It Real
Students need to know what they are learning has relevance and practicality in the real world. Otherwise, school can feel disconnected from reality. The best educators teach these life skills without the student ever recognizing that their class work translates into marketable skills well beyond the walls of an academic institution. Les asserts, “The key to teaching creatively and achieving academic results is by combining relevance with rigor. When students recognize they will actually use the material they are studying, motivation becomes self-directed. I strive to provide my students with as many realistic learning experiences as possible, so they see the importance of the skills they learn in the classroom.”
To promote authentic learning, Les created a classroom environment that mimics the real world. For his journalism class, he built a radio and television studio. Students broadcast radio and television shows on a closed circuit system. For print media, students publish their writing in the school newspaper and yearbook as well as the local newspaper. Les also adopted the use of podcasts, allowing students to gain a global audience for their writing. According to observers, it was often said that Les’ room was “run like a professional newsgathering organization where students went about their business like experts.” By doing so, Les “kept it real” and allowed students to buy into their own learning. To sum up, Les quotes William Butler Yeats, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
Elementary Education (Pre-K-6), Teachers College, Columbia University - Literacy, Former Instructor
#1 Teacher Top 5: Take Time to Build Community
In schools, Kathy states, “The social curriculum is just as important as the academic curriculum.” The Golden Rule, treating others as you would like to be treated, can only exist if teachers create an environment that is nurturing, open to different ideas, and safe for everyone. In order to understand how to build community, Kathy says, “The Responsive Classroom approach is a good place to start.” It stresses student empowerment. Teachers should provide students with as much choice as possible and include them in the classroom process. For instance, the students and teacher should come up with the classroom rules together, creating unity and buy-off as well as facilitating the inner-workings of the classroom.
Establishing rituals is essential to building community. “It not only develops routines and schedules, but it also offers security,” describes Kathy. Recognizing what is done at the start of every day, celebrating after a core literature book is completed, and throwing a publishing party following the achievement of an important writing project are all rituals that create a classroom family.
Community Service (Grades 11-12), National Teachers Hall of Fame
#1 Teacher Top 5: Establish a Student Advisory Board for Every Class
Allowing students to give input is vitally important. It provides student ownership and a real sense of responsibility. The old adage, “People support a world they help create,” absolutely applies. Ron’s student advisory board consists of a president, vice president, and five students. Every Thursday, they meet for 95 minutes to talk about possible projects for the class. Ron states, “I learned that in my first year of teaching back in l962…[to] have a student advisory board for every class….When students have an input and you listen to them, they’ll come through every single time.” In this student-centric model, the teacher guides students via inductive teaching while also helping teach critical thinking skills. It communicates to students that it is a shared learning experience and that their voice matters.
John Mick Sharkey
Biological Sciences (Grades 10-12), Idaho State Teacher of the Year
#1 Teacher Top 5: Grade Only What Counts, Perform Student Self-Assessment, and Provide Meaningful, Timely Feedback
Having pinpoint focus on what truly counts is essential. In Mick’s gradebook, the only grades that exist are for tests from “learning targets,” derived from state and national standards. Mick declares, “The only thing in my gradebook is what’s important, whether or not they know the material.” While students are given homework and quizzes, none of them are entered. That said, immediate and meaningful feedback is always provided for everything turned in and reviewed. “I demand a lot from them, and they have a right to demand a lot from me. So, I try to make the turnaround immediate like the next day or same day,” acknowledges Mick.
Along the same lines, students self-assess regularly. After each question on a quiz, there is an “A” (fill in learning targets adequately) and “K” (I know it) column for each student to check off. When everyone is finished, students check their answers on a posted answer key. Thereafter, Mick takes surveys and reviews questions that were missed. “If everyone misses a specific question, it’s not a student issue, it’s a curriculum delivery problem,” states Mick. Therefore, Mick will go back and reteach.
Science (Grades 7, 11-12), Nebraska State Teacher of the Year
#1 Teacher Top 5: Get to Know Your Students Well
When teachers know their students really well, they can cater to their strengths, make personal connections, and help them meet and exceed their full potential. For Bob, having longevity teaching at the same school helps. He has taught at his school in Nebraska for over 35 years. At this point, he is teaching the children of former students and the entire community knows him. Just as importantly, Bob teaches seventh graders as well as eleventh and twelfth graders. This is a huge advantage as compared to other teachers who may have moved around or teach only one grade. Bob states, “You get to know the students’ backgrounds, likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses…kids also get to know me. Those who had me in seventh…know my expectations.”
To become acquainted with students, Bob always starts with a survey early on in the year. He asks about siblings, full names, extended family relationships, and such. Bob also taps into the school data system to find the first person of contact, in order to understand a student’s home life, without having to pry publicly. Bob knows, “Kids have a difficult time disassociating home life with school life. Usually, if they have a problem in school, there’s an issue at home.” Bob also builds rapport outside of the classroom. His friendly demeanor allows students to approach him and open up easily.
Elementary Education (Grade 1, 3), Arizona State Teacher of the Year
#1 Teacher Top 5: Believe in Yourself
No matter how prepared or seasoned an educator, teaching is challenging. Joy declares, “Teaching is not as easy as many think, [but] it starts with believing that you can make a difference one child at a time, one day at a time.” To be a successful teacher, this belief is vitally important. Even though the goal is often to nurture student growth, improve scores, and meet state standards, getting it all done can take time. So, patience is a virtue and a teacher must have a “Never say die” attitude. Joy says, “You have to believe that you’re making a difference. It starts with you, and you grow from there.” She also points out that teachers can often be isolated in their own classrooms without any other adults to rebound ideas. Don’t be discouraged. Rather, Joy encourages teachers to believe in their own abilities and trust themselves.
Math and Science (Grades 7, 9-12), South Dakota State Teacher of the Year
#1 Teacher Top 5: Have Passion and Love What You Do
At the 2009 Teacher of the Year conference, Paul and his recipients were asked to provide a word to describe the attributes of a good teacher. Paul wrote down the word, “passion.” Interestingly enough, passion was the number one word chosen by him and his colleagues. Paul says, “I don’t know how to define it, but I know it when I see it. It’s not just liking kids. It’s about liking your kids liking your subject, and wanting to make the connection to your students about your subject.” Paul adds that students know if a teacher honestly enjoys teaching or whether he or she is faking it. He states, “They’ll know if you say, ‘I like math,’ but deep down you really don’t like it. You’re just doing it for the job. They’ll figure it out.” On the other hand, if students see their teacher working on the subject-matter outside of the classroom during his or her free time, then teacher interest is sincere.
As for passion in teaching, many say that it is inherent in the person. Paul, however, believes that it can be learned over time. “If you’re around it enough, it’ll rub off. That’s why the school culture is really important when you build a staff,” declares Paul. Either way, students know when they have struck gold and have a great teacher. In the classroom, students feel special, and they know that the subject is special too.
History (Grades 10-12), New Mexico State Teacher of the Year
#1 Teacher Top 5: Never Enter a Classroom Unprepared
It is a real challenge to manage students of any age. A variety of studies suggest that roughly 33% of all new teachers leave the profession after three years, and 46% quit within five years. Jim says, “For young teachers, classroom management is one of the biggest problems…my recommendation is to prepare really good lessons, know what you are doing, and enter a classroom overprepared. That will allow you to survive the profession.” Built into this logic is that teachers need to be organized and think things deeply through. Jim points out, “Students don’t want you to waste their time….Students have a good sense that they know the teachers who know what they’re doing.” All of this preparedness benefits not only the students, but also the teacher. All teachers know when their classroom is running efficiently and effectively. By adopting this first principle, a career in teaching has less chance of premature abdication.