Great teachers know how to inspire kids to learn, but how do they do it? Here, the three Middle Tennessee finalists for 2011 - 2012 Teacher of the Year (Grand Division winners from East, West and Middle Tennessee will be selected this fall and finally, Teacher of the Year), share time-tested knowledge about what works for kids in school.
Teacher of the Year recognizes outstanding teachers who exemplify excellence, dedication and a talent for working with students, and according to former Tennessee Education Commissioner Bruce Opie, “Teachers are the heart of motivating students’ academic achievement and success.”
Jennifer Magnusson teaches first grade at Pleasant Hill Elementary in Cumberland County; Alison Payne is a former classroom teacher, now school counselor at Murfreesboro City School’s Bradley Academy; and Mark Baker teaches English III AP Language and Composition at Williamson County’s Brentwood High.
Every good teacher starts with motivation and often, relationships. “I get to know them,” says Payne, who uses journals to write letters back and forth with her students. “Letting them know you care motivates them more than anything.”
Building relationships often means becoming one of the kids. In her first-grade classroom, Magnusson feels “free enough to be silly with them” even if that means “donning plastic glasses with a large fake nose” to introduce a vocabulary word or “flying through the classroom as Super E” to teach phonics.
Payne meets the kids on their level by using puppets to teach conflict management. And it works; she often hears from her young students who have avoided a fight with a friend by using their new skills. Payne “likes to be involved right in the middle of the learning.” On a number of occasions, administrators visiting the classroom have asked a nearby student where the teacher went, only to find Payne — at just over five feet tall — right in the middle of a bunch of excited kids.
Baker says teachers motivate with a mix of “innate ability” and a “conscious and continual effort to fine tune classroom techniques and student experiences.” That’s the heart and soul of teaching, he says. A great teacher is both a personable extrovert who leads the classroom and befriends the students and also a detail-oriented task master, prepared to spend hours at home grading papers and perfecting lessons.
All three teachers have tricks for building confidence in the first few weeks. Significantly, Baker says, “I realized 30-plus years ago that no student enters my classroom on the first day of school with a desire to fail.” Payne evaluates her students individually and makes sure to give struggling students something she knows they can do for their first assignment “so their first grade would be a good one.”
Baker has a similar idea. His first assignment is a personal essay. Students get a confidence-boosting perfect score for turning it in, but he also shows them a stellar student example from the past so they realize how far they need to go. “We learn best when we realize we don’t know,” he says. At the end of the semester, he returns the essays and asks students to analyze how far they have come.
teaching in a technological world
Magnusson notices that “children are used to getting information so quickly that teachers are faced with attention issues if they don’t keep their class moving.” But all three teachers caution that technology is best used as a tool to support good teaching, not to drive it. Baker says that with technology, he feels like “Merlin, Spock, Moses, Columbus, Einstein — often all at the same time. Yet, in the classroom arena, I have learned not to compete with such technological advances …To me, technology is much like what Ralph Waldo Emerson believed about books: well used they are the best of tools; abused, they are among the worst.”
All three believe in the power of good old-fashioned conversation. “It is amazing what rich things come our way by unrehearsed conversation,” says Baker. “When students are forced to face the text, to decipher perceptions … magic happens.” Even in first grade, Magnusson has “a lot of discussion. The students are able to learn from each other.”
balancing friendship and authority
Parents often wonder where the right balance is between being assertive and flexible, being authoritarian and being your child’s friend. Magnusson does not see the need for a conflict between authority and good relationships. “Making connections invites true learning,” she says, but also asserts that “I feel that it is my responsibility to be a leader in my room. There is a fine line between student ownership, the teacher as a facilitator and breaking the hierarchy.”
staying close to your kids
Payne encourages parents to volunteer in their children’s activities. “I’ve helped all the way through with band and tennis team,” she says, reminding parents that “there is a fine line between helping and embarrassing.” Make sure you “talk about private things away from everyone else and show [your kids] respect.”
To avoid that inevitable monosyllabic “fine” when children are asked about school, Payne suggests parents try open-ended conversation starters such as, “Tell me about your schedule.” Magnusson agrees and adds that it’s not enough to just hear the answer, but to “truly listen” and “show sincere interest.” She also cautions against trying to solve all of your kids’ problems for them. But when you hear a troubling response such as, “I hate math,” she says that “is time to begin the dialogue. It is necessary to dig deeper” and start the conversations that will ultimately bring you and your child closer together.
helping with homework
Magnusson says one tip for helping with homework is patience. “Learning to choose patience over perfection is critical. A child must be allowed to make mistakes in order to feel free enough to learn.”
Payne says, “Consistency and structure are important. It’s important to have routines” even though they will inevitably be broken at times. She suggests having a place to do homework and a place to put it when finished, and recommends packing backpacks the night before so kids avoid the tendency to arrive without completed homework and filled-out forms. And that math sheet that doesn’t look anything like the math from your school days? Don’t ever feel embarrassed to ask the teacher to help you help your child.
teaching good decision making
“By the time children are teenagers parents should be counselors rather than despots,” says Baker. “During the volatile and overly-charged adolescent years, parents must guide more and ridicule less.” His advice for confronting a student is to start with a positive, move to the issue that needs to be addressed and then finish with another positive that will happen if the problem is confronted successfully.
Like Magnusson, Baker advises patience, telling parents to wait until they are calm and in control of their own emotions before confronting a child with a concern. “If I have ever mismanaged a chance to make a difference, it has been when I have spoken too soon, too quickly and with too little insight into my own motivations.” He says that his own efforts to talk with teenagers are always more successful when he understands up front the limitations of his words. “Parents can offer the chart,” he says, “but they cannot sail the ship.”