By Matthew Tungate
When Deidra Patton started teaching in 1982, there were no computers. She didn’t get her first PC until 1986 or ’87. Now, the gifted and talented coordinator for the Boyd County school district and K-5 gifted education teacher at Cannonsburg Elementary School (Boyd County) has access to computer labs, videoconferencing, Web pages and SMART boards.
When the technology works, it’s wonderful, Patton said. But when it doesn’t and a teacher is dependent on technology to do his or her lesson, it’s frustrating. In the same way, new teachers can become frustrated if a school or district doesn’t put resources at their fingertips.
“There are many best-practice teaching strategies teachers can offer that are not guaranteed by using the latest product,” she said.
Patricia Morris, who began her teaching career in 1967 and retired from Ballard High School (Jefferson County) last summer, goes a step further. Improved technology doesn’t make for better teachers, she said. Unless technology is used in the context of supporting a lesson, it may not improve teaching, she said.
“You could use PowerPoint all day long and show pictures, and the kids don’t learn a thing,” Morris said. “Technology can help a teacher become more creative. But it cannot do it for them.”
Patton and Morris know about creative teaching. A statewide selection committee chose them along with the late Artie Johnson Hankins for the fourth class of the Gov. Louie B. Nunn Kentucky Teacher Hall of Fame. Hankins taught in the Butler County school district from 1933 to 1977 and died in March 2010. All three educators were honored during a ceremony today at the State Capitol in Frankfort.
While technology has been the biggest change in her tenure, Patton said much about teaching has stayed the same. A lot of practices go out of fashion and then return under different names, she said. For instance, professional learning communities are not new, Patton said.
“Good teachers have been practicing this for years and have always been talking with their grade-level teachers or vertical team teachers,” she said. “We didn’t call it PLCs (professional learning communities), we just did it because it’s what good teaching was. It was what was necessary to move that child along and to ensure continuous progress – and, of course, we didn’t call it continuous progress back then.”
“The good teachers are doing it, they have been doing it and they will continue doing it.”
And the students haven’t changed, Morris said.
“Kids are the same as they were in the 1960s,” she said. “They may dress differently – they’re still kids.”
Influence of past teachers
Patton said she is still influenced by the teachers she had as a student.
Recently she was telling her brother about her class motto, and she told her nephew, “Good. Better. Best. Never let it rest until your good becomes your better and your better is your best.”
Her brother recognized that as a saying from the late Anna B. Francis, a former Hindman Elementary School (Knott County) 7th- and 8th-grade grammar teacher.
Among others, Patton said she also was influenced by Jane Campbell, with whom she did her student teaching at the former Caney Creek Elementary School in Breathitt County. She said Campbell stressed professionalism and loving her students by getting to know them not just in classroom but caring about their family life as well.
Morris said she was influenced most by professors at the University of Louisville, where she received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees and her Rank I.
The first was historian Mary K. Tachau, a former mentor who stayed a friend well after graduation. Tachau was so respected in the field that the Organization of American Historians named its teacher of the year award after her – an award Morris won in 2009.
Tachau was “in love with her subject,” and you got that in her classes, Morris said.
“That sparked you to say, ‘I should try to do a good job because this person is really good,’” she said.
Morris also mentioned UofL economics educator Jack Morgan and geographer Dennis Spetz as people who helped her in her career. Both helped her understand the importance of their fields within her own, and each helped her win prestigious national awards.
In fact, winning national awards and participating in fellowships in Japan, China and Washington, D.C., has convinced Morris that Kentucky teachers are as good as any in the country.
“We don’t know that about our teachers – that their dedication to the classroom, their ability to teach is comparable to anybody in this country,” she said. “We’re just as good if not better, we just don’t reveal it.”
Morris said Kentucky teachers aren’t exposed to enough opportunities on the national and international levels.
“Once you have those experiences, are you going to be a better teacher? Absolutely. Your knowledge base becomes so broad,” she said.
Innovation in the classroom
Both teachers were recognized because they engage students, according to Sam Evans, dean of the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences at Western Kentucky University, home of the teaching hall of fame.
“(Morris) makes history come alive,” he said. “She gets students excited about history through engaging learning experiences and is recognized by her peers for her excellence in teaching.”
“Ms. Patton is a life-long learner and is committed to helping each student have successful learning experiences by focusing on their individual talents,” Evans added. “Through innovative and resourceful ways, she keeps the focus on the students with whom she works and expects the best from each student.”
Morris said the Kentucky Education Reform Act required students to do more writing and higher-level thinking – both good things in her opinion.
“All teachers know this all the time – the more that you can put responsibility for learning in the child’s hands, the more they’re going to learn,” she said.
For instance, while she was a teacher at Ballard High, Morris’ students conducted trials on World War II. They would choose to try either President Franklin Roosevelt, accused of orchestrating Pearl Harbor to get the United States into the war and out of the Great Depression, or President Harry Truman for dropping two atomic bombs on Japan when the war was virtually over.
Teams of students chose to prosecute or defend each president, then decided who played what roles and made all the decisions about how to handle the case. She was only there to outline the areas of investigation, Morris said. The students conducted the trials in front of the school each spring.
“They learn a huge amount of material that I never said a word about because they become the experts,” Morris said. “And I will miss my trials this year.”
Patton encouraged other teachers to attain National Board Certification, as she did in 2003 – but only for the analysis and reflection that goes into it.
“If you’re doing this for a pay raise, there are easier ways,” she said. “Do this because you will grow as a teacher.”
Going through the rigorous application process helped rejuvenate her love for teaching, Patton said.
“Your students are what keeps you going,” she said. “You look in those eyes and you see those smiles and you hear those little voices every day, grasping new concepts and growing – that’s what it’s all about.”
Morris agreed that teachers have to find ways to keep their lessons fresh and new.
“If you get bored with it, the students are not going to learn. You have to constantly rejuvenate yourself, whatever that takes. Every year you’ve got a new class,” she said. “The first thing I’d always think about when I woke up in the morning was, ‘What am I teaching today?’ And I’d think, ‘Praise the lord, it’s Andy Jackson. I love him.’”
Patton and Morris agreed that they would like to see teaching regarded more highly as a profession, rather than a fallback position if other careers don’t work out.
Morris said she thinks of the thousands of students she has influenced by giving them an experience in American history.
“To me there’s no greater reward,” she said. “I can’t think of a more fulfilling career than teaching.”