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May 2012 | Volume 69 | Number 8
Supporting Beginning Teachers
This month, in honor of the 10th anniversary of ASCD's Outstanding Young Educator Award (OYEA) program, we asked recent OYEA recipients and finalists to share their stories.
As a part-time volunteer teacher in a Massachusetts prison my first year of college, I was teaching a lesson on how to use quotation marks. As I explained, I used "air quotes" to emphasize where the quoted part of an example fell in the full statement. A man in the class shouted gleefully, "I get it! I never knew what people were doing when they did that with their fingers, and I always felt too dumb to ask." He looked at his paper and stated that he couldn't wait to use quotation marks now that he understood "air quotes." We all laughed as a class—including him—because this small event felt so miraculous.
Working in the prison, I witnessed the impact that a flawed education system can have on individuals—and the power that teachers have to influence lives. I realized that this profession provided a way to share both laughter and the empowering exchange of knowledge.
—Deirdra Grode, K–8 codirector/principal, Hoboken Charter School, New Jersey
During my first year teaching a bilingual 2nd grade class in a Title I school, I felt nervous and tentative. I enjoyed the work and believed I was making a difference, but as the months went by, I felt myself getting buried by the demands of teaching. Then came parent-teacher conferences! On a whim, I offered parents the option of hosting conferences in their homes. All but three selected that choice. The experience had an indelible effect on my career. Not only did I strengthen my relationship with families, but I also got a feel for my students' lives outside the classroom—and ate many a delicious, home-cooked meal. For the rest of that year, our classroom ran itself. The children were wonderful, the parents were ultra-supportive, discipline problems disappeared, and the academic growth of my students was documented in almost every assessment. As for me, I knew I had arrived as a professional educator.
—Pete Hall, principal, Shaw Middle School, Spokane, Washington
To be honest, I was not one of those young people who dream of becoming a teacher. I got an MBA and planned to be an entrepreneur or a marketing manager. But I wanted something more than a lucrative pay package. The words of Gandhi, "Be the change you want to see in the world," guided me. So after a short stint as a marketing manager, I decided to accept a position as a computer instructor. It was a radical decision that stunned many around me, but I enjoyed every minute of dealing with young, bustling minds. After a couple of years, I was given the task of teaching business to grade 11 and 12 students. Bingo! This combined my three passions—entrepreneurship, information and communications technology, and teaching.
I started experimenting with teaching methodologies and various assessment styles. I took risks; I flipped my classroom to make it more student-centered and more focused on preparing students to be 21st century citizens. My students who had often been written off in traditional education started flourishing and becoming confident. Many are now successful businesspersons and professionals. When I see them, I feel that it was worth sacrificing one corporate career to shape hundreds. I am proud to be "just" a teacher.
—Bijal Damani, grade 11–12 business teacher, The Galaxy Education System, Rajkot, Gujarat, India
In my third year of teaching, I taught a newspaper journalism class. One day as the students were working on an issue of the school newspaper, I overheard several of them animatedly discussing a recent problem in the school in which one student used Facebook to disparage another student. Students began referring to what they had learned in our class about slander and how social media aren't exempt from such laws. Then I heard a student say, "I think we have a story here!" As the entire student staff developed the story and several companion stories about social media and teens, I never said a word—I just sat there smiling. The students completed the issue and published a wonderful story. When I realized that they had learned how to operate without my guidance, I knew I had done my job.
—Chris Canter, assistant principal, Spalding Drive Charter Elementary School, Sandy Springs, Georgia
I never intended to stay in education; my plan was to teach for a year and then complete law school. In April of my first year, I informed my principal that I would not be returning. Quickly, word got out to my students and then to their parents, and in the remaining six weeks of the school year I received many heartfelt thank-you notes and kind words from the entire school community. The words of one student, Laron, made a special impression. One day after school as I was tutoring him, he said, "No teacher has ever cared about us as much as you have. There are so many of us who wish you would stay. The biggest lesson you've taught us is that life is bigger than ourselves; we must give back to others." At that moment, I knew I had been in the right profession all along. It's been more than 10 years since I withdrew my resignation, and I've never regretted it.
—Dallas Dance, chief school officer, middle schools, Houston Independent School District, Texas
My 9th graders were studying Of Mice and Men
and discussing how characters in the novel had to cross barriers of intelligence, age, race, and gender to form unlikely friendships. In relating the theme to their lives, most students stated that their social connections did not reach beyond our community. So we arranged for these 9th graders in a suburban, coed, public high school to become pen pals with students at an urban, all-boys, Catholic high school in the neighboring county.
Before long, students asked when they could meet their new friends in person. The urban teacher and I arranged for a tree-planting day at a nearby environmental center on the border between our counties. When the big day came, it was a thrill to see students working, laughing, and learning together. That was the first time I remember feeling like a teacher—when my love of literature and my belief in empowering students to change their world came together.
—Maureen Connolly, English teacher, Mineola High School, Garden City Park, New York
I was teaching 8th graders in an assignment that was challenging for a first-year teacher. I found my third-period class especially difficult. Allen was one of my biggest discipline problems. One day he was cooperative in class; I seized the moment, and that afternoon I called his mom to tell her how proud I was of him. The next morning, as I was going into the school, Allen ran up to show me his new sneakers, a reward from his mom in response to my positive phone call. Allen told other students, who began asking when I was going to call home about them. That's when I realized the power of building positive relationships with kids—especially those who have learned to push teachers away.
—Susan Kessler, executive principal, Hunters Lane Comprehensive High School, Nashville, Tennessee
I found the challenge of student teaching simultaneously exhilarating and nerve-wracking. My postsecondary tool kit of theory and training related to lesson design, instructional strategies, and child development had not fully prepared me for the realities of the classroom. As I worked through that five-week practicum experience, my learning curve was nearly vertical. On the final day, a 2nd grade student gave me a hug, accompanied by the comment, "I'll never forget you, Mr. Hewson." At that moment, I felt like a teacher. Making that connection with a student represented the genesis of what has been a rich and rewarding career.
—Kurtis Hewson, faculty associate, University of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada
After my freshman year in college, I had the opportunity to work as a 5th grade English teacher in New Orleans. My students and I used many of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s speeches to study aspects of the English language. As a final project, students wrote their own "I Have a Dream" speeches about a problem in the world they were determined to solve. During the program's final celebration, my students stood in front of an auditorium filled with 500 parents and community members and shared their dreams. The audience was stunned, remaining silent for several minutes after the last speech. At that moment, I realized the power young people possess. When they are challenged in a supportive environment, all children have the ability to light up the world as my students lit up the auditorium. The desire to give all young people the opportunity to fulfill this potential inspired me to begin working with the Durham community in 2005 to start Student U, a year-round program that provides academic enrichment for students who are at risk of becoming disengaged from education.
—Dan Kimberg, executive director, Student U, Durham, North Carolina
My first few years of teaching, I worked in a high school that had limited racial, socioeconomic, and religious diversity. One day, my literature class was studying Jonathan Edwards's sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" when I noticed one of my students staring at me with an incredulous expression. Later, he shared that he was stunned when I mentioned to the class that I did not fully understand some parts of Edwards's sermon because I was raised in the Jewish faith. I was the first Jew he had ever met, and he had always been taught that the yarmulke Jews wear was to cover their horns. Because I had no horns and wore no yarmulke, he didn't know what to believe.
That was the moment when I realized my job was about more than just teaching literature and writing; it was about establishing relationships and helping students grow and expand their worldviews. It was also about opening myself up to the fact that not all students bring the same background, knowledge, and experiences to the classroom.
—Marc Cohen, principal, Seneca Valley High School, Germantown, Maryland
The moment when I first felt like a real teacher is crystal clear to me. You could feel the energy in the room as my student, Israel, suddenly realized the progress he had made. I am a firm believer that smart is not something you are, but something you become. I am also certain that students' beliefs can powerfully influence their success. Israel realized that in our time together he was indeed getting smarter. This was a pivotal moment in both our lives.
I initially became an educator because I had a teacher who believed in me when others before her hadn't. She was the first person that looked beyond the surface and embodied the belief that I could indeed become smarter. From that moment on, my mission has been to help people become smarter. To this day, that is when I most feel like a "real" teacher.
—Brian Nichols, executive director of school leadership, Newport News Public Schools, Virginia
One time when I truly felt like an educator was when I was a principal in St. Louis in 2001, when our students led efforts that resulted in passage of the Stray Dog Bill. These students were responding to a horrible event that tested their resilience—the death of one of our 4th graders, Rodney McAllister, who was killed by stray dogs on the way home from school. Following the tragedy, we taught lessons to empower students to create a safer community. As a result of the students' advocacy, the Stray Dog Bill was enacted, promoting a safer city for students. Our handprints remain imprinted on the park pathway where Rodney died; they are my reminder that as educators, we have the power in our hands to help our learners shape their future.
—Tiffany Anderson, chief academic officer, Kansas City Public Schools, Missouri
As a teacher, it always gave me an adrenaline rush when students' eyes widened and their nonverbal cues showed that they "got it." Sometimes, however, their eyes revealed the opposite. One particular day, as I taught a lesson on latitude and longitude, I knew by Brandon's eyes that he wasn't paying attention. After class, I spoke with Brandon about what I had observed. Brandon stated, "I can't concentrate—I have bigger problems than finding the latitude and longitude of Paris, France." He told me about his undesirable situation at home, which prompted him to question life. I knew that he needed a listening ear, and from then on I made a point of building a trusting relationship with Brandon to enable him to share his problems. At the end of the school year, Brandon told me, "Thanks for saving my life because you listened and cared!" I knew I was in the right profession.
—Joris M. Ray, director, innovative and charter schools, Memphis City Schools, Tennessee
Shortly after I began teaching, I had a student in one of my classes who rarely came to school and consequently struggled to keep up. I had talked to him about his absences and attempted to contact his guardian, but my efforts had been fruitless. I asked several of my colleagues about the student, and they said that he had struggled since the death of his parents; he was living with a sister, and he frequently just bounced from house to house, staying with relatives and friends. They had tried to help him, but he was never at school enough for their help to make a difference. I talked to the student and told him I would pick him up every morning for school. There were many times when I had to wake him up and insist that he go. But gradually he became more responsible, and he eventually defied the odds by graduating on time. At graduation, he thanked me for never giving up on him and for pushing him to do his best, and he told me he would have never made it without my help. That day reinforced my desire to help more students reach their goals.
—Matt McClure, superintendent, Cross County School District, Cherry Valley, Arkansas
I am 6'2" and pretty intimidating. When I started teaching at an inner-city middle school, I was determined to have good classroom management—and I did. I was that first-year teacher who could get 25 8th graders to sit quietly and read for 90 minutes. I created procedures, I enforced consequences consistently, and I worked hard to make sure every single one of my students behaved correctly. I was Harry Wong on steroids. My aha moment came when, after a year or two, I realized that all I was teaching was obedience.
I knew I was a real teacher when I embraced the social justice perspective I had come to education with in the first place. Rather than seeing middle schoolers as founts of potential chaos, I began to see them as individuals who needed my help to challenge their boundaries and to progress as readers, writers, and thinkers. Control took a backseat to engagement. Teaching took a backseat to learning. Activities took a backseat to students. These days, as I help prepare new teachers to enter the profession, my work always ties back to that initial realization: engagement, learning, and students—that's what it's all about.
—Jennifer Morrison, assistant professor, Newberry College, South Carolina
I became truly excited about teaching early in my career when I realized the potential of project-based instruction aimed at school and community improvement. A group of students and I decided to create an environmental sustainability movement within our school. Students conducted waste and energy audits, made presentations at school board and staff meetings, and created an action plan. They were not only reading, researching, and writing, but also thinking critically and problem solving as they worked toward important, positive change. In the end, they witnessed the direct results of their efforts and began to realize that their voices can be heard and their actions do make a difference. Since then, I have led several groups of students through projects aimed at making a positive difference in the world around them.
—Brad Kuntz, teacher, Gladstone High School, Gladstone, Oregon
For as long as I can remember, I wanted to become a teacher. I would pretend to play school with my younger sister, Corlie. Each night, I would teach her the lessons I had acquired in school that day, and she would be my enthusiastic student. So the decision to become a teacher was easy. I majored in elementary education at Montana State University, and after graduating was hired to teach 36 5th grade students. I can remember my first day—I was nervous but also thrilled that I was actually getting paid to do something I loved. As I saw how important teachers are to building effective, engaging learning environments, I set my sights on becoming a principal, a position in which I could affect hundreds of students each year. What an incredible profession!
—Carrie A. Buck, principal, C. T. Sewell Elementary School, Henderson, Nevada
I took my first teaching job three days before the start of the year. Using a stray shopping cart, I collected discarded teacher items: paper trays, pencil cups, an old globe, dictionaries, and a wooden bookshelf. All year, I worked nonstop, often staying in my classroom planning lessons and updating bulletin boards until dark. I made it through parent conferences, report cards, staff meetings, our class play, establishing a native plant garden, and the school science fair.
At the end-of-year open house, I stood by my classroom door holding a colorful bouquet of flowers from my students' parents. Finally, I stopped to absorb all we had accomplished. At every desk, there was a portfolio of student work. Surrounding me were art projects, spelling tests, book reports, math mosaics, and the "We Heart Science" bulletin board. My favorite was our "Look at ALL We Learned in 5th Grade" time line, with photographs and student testimonials capturing everything we had accomplished. My students and I worked hard to turn this once-empty room into a real classroom. I was a teacher!
—Liliana Aguas, 2nd grade dual immersion teacher, LeConte School, Berkeley, California
As a teacher, I always had the roughest students assigned to me. I had excellent classroom management, and my principal counted on me to connect with the school's challenging male students. I did not realize the impact I was having until I found out that one of my most difficult students had graduated from college and was planning to become a teacher himself. Working in the community where I grew up, I know how difficult it is to live, let alone become an educated individual. Being able to save the life of a child and inspire him to become a future school leader is the greatest honor a teacher can have. I do not ever want to be anything other than an educator.
—Luis Torres, principal, Public School 55, Bronx, New York
When I entered the teaching profession, I wanted to be a transformational teacher. To bring real-world experiences into the classroom, I subscribed to the New York Times and used it in as many subjects as possible, and I would send the paper home with students every night to share with their families. One day when the paper was not delivered, one of my students, a first-generation immigrant from El Salvador, asked why. He explained that his aunt looked forward to his bringing the paper home each night because she was using it to teach herself English. At that moment, I knew that I was a real teacher because my ability to change the trajectory of someone's learning experience extended beyond my classroom walls.
—Marnie Hazelton, doctoral candidate, Hofstra University, Freeport, New York
Copyright © 2012 by ASCD
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