by Julie Dodd
JEA Mentoring Committee co-chair

Photo from Teacher Magazine

I read with interest that the 2010 Teacher of the Year is a high school English teacher — Sarah Brown Wessling of Johnston High School in Iowa.

Many of us who are or have been high school media advisers also were high school English teachers. So we can applaud her selection because we share some of her challenges and accomplishments.

A few observations.

Why haven’t I read about the Teacher of the Year in the print or online news?

The announcement was made in the Rose Garden of the White House on April 29. I spotted this news item in Teacher Magazine online, a link from Education Week.

I did a Google search for “2010 National Teacher of the Year.” The story I found was on the Center for Educational Networking, from February, that provided brief profiles of the four finalists.

  • Kelly A. Kovacic—2010 California Teacher of the Year: Kovacic is an 11th and 12th grade social studies teacher at the Preuss School in La Jolla, California. She has taught a total of eight years, all at Preuss, a school of 819 students.
  • Megan Marie Allen—2010 Florida Teacher of the Year: Allen is a 4th grade teacher at Cleveland Elementary School in Tampa, Florida. She has taught for five years, the last four at Cleveland Elementary, which has 343 students.
  • Sarah Brown Wessling—2010 Iowa Teacher of the Year: Wessling is a 10th through 12th grade English teacher at Johnston High School in Johnston, Iowa. She has taught at this school of 1,250 students for ten of her eleven years in the education profession.
  • Robert L. Stephenson—2010 Michigan Teacher of the Year: Stephenson is a 3rd grade teacher at Wardcliff Elementary School in the Okemos Public Schools of East Lansing, Michigan. He has been an educator at Wardcliff, a school of 240 students, for all fifteen of his years as a teacher.

The four nominees are from relatively small schools.

Three of the four teachers are from small schools — 240, 343 and 819 students. Wessling is from the largest school with 1,250 students. High schools in Florida in big cities like Tampa, Miami and Orlando may have 2,500 to 5,000 students. Studies found that school size plays an important part in student and teacher success. Although larger schools can provide more curriculum choices, larger schools don’t provide a nurturing environment for the best learning.

Teachers can be outstanding — and can rise to a level of recognition — without having to be long-term teaching veterans.

Of the four finalists, their teaching experience is five, eight, eleven and fifteen years. That’s encouraging in a field where dozens and perhaps hundreds of students are in a teacher’s classroom within the first two or three years of the teacher’s career starting. Teachers need to be competent when they begin their teaching. The Journalism Education Association recognizes the excellence of new journalism teachers with its Rising Star Award.

Wessling’s English department offers a varied curriculum.

Wessling’s profile in Teacher Magazine includes that she is the English department chair. Since 2003, she has helped develop 15 new English courses, including “On the Road,” which explores metaphorical and physical journeys, and “Sport, Competition, and Culture,” which looks at the role of sports in society. The story says that students can chose from this array of electives when they have completed their requirements.

I would have been interested in knowing more about that, as we are finding journalism/media courses being squeezed out of the curriculum because there is no room for anything but “required” courses. I wonder if Wessling’s English department includes journalism classes.

No mention was made of Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind or state standardized testing.

Wessling’s principal talked about her ability to create courses that were more appealing to students. Wessling talked about having her desk in the back of the classroom as “an outward sign of an implicit philosophy that teaching must be learner-centered.”

We’d say the same about high school media programs that provide the students with a range of ways to learn and to help work as a team to produce a newspaper, yearbook or broadcast. But that approach to learning often doesn’t translate into paper-and-pencil testing that is state mandated.

One of those who posted a comment about the article wrote: “This teacher looks and sounds lovely and inspiring! But I was wondering why there was no mention of her student’s standardized test scores? I think the teacher of the year should be the one with the highest standardized test scores!”

Fortunately, those reviewing the candidates for Teacher of the Year were looking beyond spreadsheets of test score data to the bigger picture of teaching excellence.