By Matthew Tungate
Once every nine weeks, East Jessamine High School (Jessamine County) English teacher Erika Webb asks her students to anonymously evaluate her. They tell what’s going well in the class and what isn’t, where they want more help, what they like and what they don’t like. Webb reads the comments and alters her instruction accordingly. It appears to be paying off.
Last year, her 11th-grade English III class included many students who struggled and were not engaged in school – including one pregnant teen.
Webb found out through the survey that the class did not like what she was doing.
“They were bored. They didn’t think this mattered,” she said. “They needed some instant gratification.”
Because the curriculum map called for non-fiction research, Webb changed her plans and had students research what kind of training and grades they needed for the job they wanted, and what the job entailed.
At end of the assignment, two-thirds of the students decided they didn’t want to do that job after all. Others realized they needed to do better in school – including the pregnant teen. Following the assignment, that student tried harder and made better grades. She even finished the course early and is back in school this year, Webb said.
Thanks to her desire for self-improvement and willingness to adapt to students’ needs, Webb was named the 2011 Kentucky Teacher of the Year on Oct. 19 at the Capitol Rotunda in Frankfort.
Sarah Wilder, a 5th-grade social studies teacher at W.R. McNeill Elementary (Bowling Green Independent), was named 2011 Elementary School Teacher of the Year, and Ashley Forrest, a middle school band director at Thomas Jefferson Middle School (Jefferson County), was named 2011 Middle School Teacher of the Year.
The three joined 21 other teachers from across the state honored with 2011 Ashland Inc. Teacher Achievement Awards. Wilder and Forrest received $3,000 each and a customized, art-glass vase from Ashland Inc., while Webb received $10,000 and a commemorative crystal-glass bowl. In addition, the Department of Education will provide a sabbatical or suitable alternative for Webb, who also will represent the state in the 2011 National Teacher of the Year competition. The remaining 21 winners each received $500.
Webb, a National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT) who is in her 10th year at East Jessamine High, said she hopes that winning the award will draw attention to all of the “exceptionally hard working, intellectually curious colleagues throughout the state who are doing the good work toiling away in the trenches every day who don’t get the chance to be recognized and yet who still come in every day and do it.”
“I work with people who I know are better teachers than I am,” she said. “Just because somebody doesn’t get a teacher of the year award doesn’t mean that they’re not doing amazing work in the classroom.”
Being an educator is in Webb’s blood, as her grandmother was a teacher, her father is a retired education professor, and her mother and stepfather also are college professors.
“This is kind of the family business,” she said. “I grew up in an environment that absolutely valued education. I’m from a family of people who value education and who value critical thinking.”
A good teacher is a lifelong learner who is continuously improving, Webb said.
“A good teacher would always inspire the love of learning in others around him or her, and if that’s your parents, then every day you see that,” she said.
Webb said she chose teaching as her profession because she wanted to do something that was beneficial to society, and what better way to help society than to help children become independent thinkers.
“Teaching is an act of social justice,” she said. “I want there to be no factor that prevents all students from having a first-class education.”
Wilder, who has spent the last five years of her eight-year career teaching 5th-grade students at W.R. McNeill Elementary, said she didn’t consider going into teaching until she volunteered to work with children at her church in her late teens or early 20s.
“I immediately discovered my true calling in life,” she said. “When I began working in the primary organization with these young children, it inspired my love and passion for teaching children. I realized that I was happiest and felt the most fulfilled when I was teaching small children.”
Like her high school counterpart and fellow NBCT, Wilder said she tries to focus on each child as an individual and on her own work.
“I consistently try to reflect on my teaching and my areas of strengths and weaknesses,” she said. “I constantly work to identify resources and professional developments which will improve my weaknesses.”
Forrest is in her 11th year as a teacher, all at Thomas Jefferson Middle. She credited her grandparents, who played piano and organ in their home, and her high school band director for helping lead her into education.
“I loved everything about band class – from the practices to the friendships,” Forrest said. “The band room became another home for me. It was a place I was made to feel important as well as be a part of something great. I went into teaching hoping to help other students feel what I felt. I wanted to work with young people to help them become better musicians as well as better citizens.”
Music classes give students something other classes may not, Forrest said, like an opportunity to create and perform, to be part of something bigger than themselves, to work together and create something that can never be duplicated.
“These classes may be the reason some kids come to school,” she said. “Music may be the reason they succeed in other classes. Music class may be the only place they feel important and needed. We can’t take that away.”
Each of the teachers of the year credited fellow teachers – past and present – with helping them become the professionals they are today. In that spirit, each offered advice for other teachers who want to be the best they can be.
Webb said teachers should remember that their work is never finished. “The best day in my classroom is just practice for tomorrow,” she is fond of saying.
“It’s not something magical that I’m doing,” Webb said. “I like what I do, but I work very, very hard at what I do. I’m very intentional in my practice.”
For instance, 63 percent of her students passed the Advanced Placement English Language test last year. That was higher than the state and national average, but, Webb said, “that’s not good enough because it’s not 100 percent.”
So she spent the summer analyzing where she can improve.
“So I see this as, ‘My students’ success is my success,” she said.
To improve, teachers should look around them to learn strategies from other excellent teachers. At East Jessamine High, throughout the year teachers get to observe three other teachers: one they choose, one picked at random and one assigned by an administrator, Webb said.
“That has just been such an amazing experience to get out and see the good work that other teachers are doing and realizing that you’re not alone if you’re struggling and there’s help that’s out there and it’s not even that far away,” she said. “Good professional development doesn’t have to expensive, it doesn’t require a travel-authorization form. You can walk across the hall and see some amazing work that’s being done.”
Wilder also suggested teachers look to improve themselves by considering National Board certification. She said it inspired to her to reflect on how she taught and to improve areas of weakness.
“Every child deserves access to highly accomplished teachers and an opportunity to benefit from the rigorous, high standards a NBCT teacher implements daily into their teaching,” she said. “We have been entrusted to educate children who will be our leaders in the future and it is an enormous responsibility.”
Forrest said teachers must show they care about students as people, not just their test scores.
“Students need a safe place to try, fail and try again,” she said. “We must create an environment of mutual respect where everyone, including the teacher, is giving their best at all times. If students feel this way in a classroom, I believe they are more likely to be successful.”
MORE INFO …
Erika Webb, firstname.lastname@example.org, (859) 885-7240, ext. 3122
Sarah Wilder, email@example.com, (270) 746-2260
Ashley Forrest, firstname.lastname@example.org, (502) 485-8273