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What Teachers of the Year Can Teach Us

Three State Teachers of the Year on teaching, continuous learning, and the state of education today.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

There’s no denying that there are differing opinions about “what works” in education. At times, the voices of teachers—the ones who most intimately deal with these complex issues—are lost in the mix. Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with three State Teachers of the Year from across the country to pick their brains about teaching, continuous learning, and the state of American education today. An edited version of our conversation appears below.

Joshua Parker is a Compliance Specialist in the Office of Title I of Baltimore County Public Schools and adjunct professor at the Notre Dame of Maryland University. He is the 2012 Maryland State teacher of the year.

Luke Foley, the 2014 Vermont State Teacher of the Year, teaches at the STAR Alternative Program at Northfield Middle High School in Northfield, Vermont. He uses a creative and experiential place-based curriculum to engage his students in their education, their school, and their community.

Jonathan Crossley, the 2014 Arkansas State Teacher of the Year, teaches English, oral communication, and drama at Palestine-Wheatley High School in Palestine, Arkansas. By using Socratic seminars, student-led questioning, and relationship-building, Jonathan led his students to the title of Most Improved for Literacy in the entire state of Arkansas (36% to 90% proficient or advanced). He is a Delta '10 TFA alum.

Three head shots of smiling male teachers who won Teacher of the Year.

You’ve all had rich, exciting careers in the classroom. What are three things that you wish you had known when you first started teaching?

Joshua Parker:. Throughout teacher-preparation programs, most of what is emphasized is the content knowledge and pedagogy, but I find the soft skills and traits are what really make the difference between good and great. Brilliant lectures have died from the lips of apathetic teachers. Teacher-prep programs are great and necessary for being a teacher. But they are only the beginning of knowledge needed to become a great teacher. You need to be fueled from a desire within to research books and articles that are pertinent to your particular area. The knowledge you receive before you teach can’t match the knowledge you self-select after you start teaching.

Luke Foley: My advice for other new teachers would be two-fold. First, there will be many exciting opportunities and initiatives that you’ll want to be a part of. Don’t take on too much, because you will burn yourself out. Take on the projects (coaching, committees, etc.) that are most important to you, and do those very well. Second, get out of your classroom. Ask other teachers in your department and throughout your school to sit in on their classes. In public education, we need more collaboration and open communication. The best way to do that is by having a new generation of educators coming up with the experience of watching and learning from experienced teachers, and also bringing your new ideas and energy to some teachers who have been around a while.

Jonathan Crossley: Flexibility is the key. Before teaching, I considered myself a pretty flexible person. Yet nothing could have prepared me for the onslaught of interruptions and sudden changes you encounter as a teacher. Learning to adapt to impromptu meetings, random drug tests, and excessive student absences have made me the definition of flexible. My first year, I made too many mountains out of molehills. When we exhibit stress, our students reflect that stress right back to us. A flexible teacher is a happy teacher.

What is the best advice you’ve received as a teacher?

JP: “Let nothing come between you and doing what’s absolutely right and necessary.” One of my mentors, Dr. Alfred Tatum, told me this when I became an English department chair. It was all the ammunition I needed to start trying to develop a literacy program that inspires the critical-thinking and advanced-reading skills necessary to be a literate individual.

LF: “This race is a marathon, not a sprint.” We live in an instant-gratification society, where people expect immediate results. This is especially true of the generation of young adults getting ready to enter the teaching profession. To truly create a cultural change with individuals or within a system, it will take time. Don’t be so intensely focused on what went wrong or how far you have to go. Make sure that you take time to acknowledge what is going well and how far you have come.

JC: “Always leave a place better than when you found it.” Though not an educator, my father imparted these words to me with lint in his hair and sweat on his brow. I am a first-generation college graduate. Most of my students will be first-generation college graduates as well. My job is dire and urgent. Every day, I seek to build relationships, teach content, and impact lives in deep and meaningful ways. Research indicates that the most direct factor in a student’s success is the quality of their classroom teacher. We cannot make excuses while allowing a child, who has individual dreams and individual aspirations, to slip through the cracks of apathy simply because the task may seem too daunting.

You’re not just good teachers—you’re excellent teachers. What have been the most meaningful growth and learning opportunities that you’ve experienced as a teacher? To borrow a Jim Collins line, how did you make the jump from “good” to “great”?

JP: I am not sure if the jump happened in one particular moment. I think it was a confluence of leadership, research and curriculum. When I made the “jump,” I had leaders that were on the same continuum, but were on different ends of the spectrum: a group of them didn’t have a lot of faith in my ability to teach after a tough first year. The other group probably agreed, but continued to say nothing but positive things to me. They allowed me the flexibility to experiment, be creative and youthful. Both groups were there six years later at my surprise announcement as the winner of the top teaching award in the state.

LF: The single-most important factor in shaping my teaching style and helping me to grow has been clear and consistent feedback from other teachers, instructors, and administrators. As a teacher, you are always learning. To approach a teaching profession with a fixed mindset is pretty much impossible. You have to be open-minded enough to try things that are new or challenging to you. You also have to be open to the constructive feedback of other people, including your students. Nobody can learn how to be a great teacher without consistent support along the way.

JC: After my first year of teaching, I participated in an intensive summer residency geared toward developing excellent educators. I spent half of the day teaching and the other half reflecting. I was videoed during lessons. Veteran teachers observed me and provided feedback. Furthermore, I was paired with a mentor teacher with a similar personality to mine. I brought these principles and strategies back my school.

Teacher retention is a hot topic in education today, particularly as it relates to Teach for America teachers. In your opinion, how should we best prepare and train teachers for a fruitful career in the classroom?

JP: Give teachers real-world practice. Form book clubs with teachers with proven books that have helped other successful teachers learn and teach better. Give teachers time, in the classroom, to develop a robust strategy for breaking down data. Encourage teachers and pay them better!

LF: I think the idea of having a new teacher only student teach with one experienced teacher is a mistake.  When working as a wilderness guide, I worked with a wide range of leaders, who all had different leading styles, ways of working with kids, and “tools” in their tool belt. Through being exposed to their styles over the course of my first year of guiding, I was able to “try on” different styles, approaches, and tools, that allowed me to better define who I was as an educator. 

JC: If we want to unify the profession, we must first unify our hearts and hallways. Demonizing and backbiting leads to bitterness. When teachers harvest bitterness, students suffer. After all, without TFA, I would not have found my heart and passion in the world: education. I am committed to a lifetime of bettering the lives of students. No matter the pathway, teachers need support. Without support, no matter the profession, retention suffers.

In your opinion, what is the greatest challenge in American public education today? How will this affect the teaching profession?

JP: The greatest challenge is apathy. Too few people care and are willing to do research about what works best for teaching (in general) and for teaching boys of color (specifically). There are people who care, but they are few and far between, according to my experience.

LF: Honestly, I think the greatest challenge is that public education is too reactive. Let’s face it: education is powerful, and because it is powerful, lots of people want to have a say with what happens in it. It is the way that we can impact our future generations. Unfortunately, this has meant that many of the decisions that are made about education haven’t been made by people in the schools. There has been a disconnect between policy and the classroom. It has also meant that public education has had to swing on the pendulum of public opinion.  We have been put in a position where we are having to shift directions based upon what is perceived to be popular or important.

JC: The greatest issue is the professionalization of teaching. Every year, high-achieving high school students overlook teaching as a viable career. They want to use their talents in meaningful and creative ways, but teaching does not cross their minds! We have failed them. We know that teaching is inspirational, rewarding, challenging, dire, and urgent, but we fail to communicate this message to our kids. Some cite teacher pay as a reason. They are not wrong. Some cite the lack of prestige in the profession. They are not wrong. Some cite a lack of creativity. And when schools focus solely on teaching to a mandated test, those citations are not wrong, either! So what is the remedy? Currently, we are patching the holes in our sinking ship with Band-Aids. We need to look at the root causes for the devaluing of the teaching profession. It is too easy to blame politicians, superintendents, and parents for our troubles. If we want to fix our ship, we must take a hard look at the hole instead of the Band-Aid.

Finally: what kind of role should teachers have in the realm of education outside the classroom?

JP: Teachers should be advocates of course at every level. I think our best bang for the buck is still in the schoolhouse. Our greatest teachers should be paid well and remain in schools as teacher leaders and school leaders. Advocacy should be left to those people who now go to school just to become administrators.

LF: I think it really comes down to communication. Teachers have to feel that they are involved in decision-making and that their voice is heard. We also need clear and consistent communication from the top down. In this way, teachers will feel like they are valued as professionals, which is vitally important. If we aren’t valued by people working in education policy, why would our society, as a whole, value us?

JC: With the intermingling of educational issues growing, our collective efforts have never been more urgent. We need a system where educators are brought to the proverbial and literal tables to discuss education reform. 

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