Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Teaching Excellence Under Fire

From Helpless to Heroic

The evening was filled with tales of despair, frustration, struggle and ultimate success. The Carlston Family Foundation was recognizing five California teachers for the academic accomplishments of their students, who graduated from schools in high poverty/high risk environments and went on to succeed at prestigious colleges. An appreciative audience of family members, friends, students and colleagues were alternately roaring with laughter and fighting back tears as they listened to the teachers describe their journeys from cluelessness to mastery in the classroom.

Most of the stories had a common arc. “I cried every day of my student teaching. I thought, why spend all this time and money to become a teacher? It’s awful!” said Vickie Kurtz with a smile. “I don’t know exactly what happened, but it’s been 28 years now”, since she began teaching English, British Literature, Composition and Rhetoric at Hoopa Valley High School on an Indian reservation near the Oregon border. Stanford student Natalie Carpenter, nominated Kurtz for the award. "Ms. Kurtz was the only teacher who showed any interest in my well being. She believed in me, even when I thought I was a failure. My life was falling apart around me, but she never allowed me to use my problems as an excuse for not doing my best.”

Another award-winning teacher, Jonathan Winn, was “way overwhelmed” in his first school assignment. “I quit after two years, cleaned out my retirement account and I went to Thailand and taught English over there and thought I was never coming back." But he returned to San Diego and found a home at Crawford High School’s math department. Teaming with verteran teachers Carl Munn and Becky Breedlove, Winn established one of the most successful calculus programs in the country. In a school where only one in ten students is a native English speaker, and 95 percent receive free or reduced lunch, the AP Calculus program has grown from 15 students to 150 in 3 years and boasts the highest pass rate in the district on the AP exam.

The Crawford calculus crew: Becky Breedlove, Jonathan Winn, Carl Munn

Keys to Success

In addition to working in schools with challenges, the winning teachers have many things in common. Carlston Family Foundation Director, Tim Allen, has interview hundreds of students who listed the qualities that make their favorite teacher stand out from the rest of the faculty. Here are nine of the key qualities/strategies outstanding teachers share:

1. Have a deep passion for teaching – love their subject matter and know it thoroughly.
2. Have high expectations that are fair, reasonable, consistent and clear.
3. Are scholarly and love learning themselves.
4. Hold all students equally accountable and responsible for learning and for their behavior.
5. Plan every minute of class time –never a wasted moment.
6. Will never leave students behind and will allow other students to help those who have difficulty.
7. Make the subject matter relevant to the lives of students and their immediate experience.
8. Have respect for students, are insightful about them on a day- to-day basis, are non-judgmental.
9. Are authentic, real and appropriately autobiographical.

No Good Program Goes Unpunished

Not only do the Carlston Awards honor individual teachers for their achievements, they also confer prestige on the schools and programs the teachers represent. But even the most successful programs have come under attack from administrators and school boards looking to cut costs.

San Diego’s Crawford High School was a failing comprehensive school until 2005, when several small schools, including the School of Community Health and Medical Practices (CHAMPS), where Jonathan Winn teaches, was established. Since then, drop-out rates have decreased 7 percent, graduation rates have increased 9 percent, and AP course enrollments have increased 19 percent. But the small school model is more expensive than the comprehensive model- about $40. per student, per year. Three principals are more expensive than one. Shutting down the small schools would bring the district about $370K closer to filling a 72 million dollar budget shortfall. So the San Diego School Board is exploring all options, including closing CHAMPS.

But Winn and his students don’t plan to let that happen without a fight. Students and teachers have staged several protests on campus. A few weeks ago, the superintendent called for a "revisioning meeting" with the community, but few parents attended, since a robocall announcing the meeting went out the day before the event in English only. (35 different languages are spoken at Crawford). “Crawford students overwhelmingly want the small schools model”, says Winn. “Crawford teachers overwhelmingly want the small schools model. Teachers are skeptical about the degree to which the school district will do what is best for this community.” As a contingency, “a group of Crawford teachers, including myself, are currently wrapping up the framework for a new school we would like to open in this community. We are in the process of securing $20 million in funding for this new school”.

Nominate an Outstanding Teacher

The Carlston Family Foundation is looking to identify the next class of heroic teachers. Each honoree receives a $15,000 cash award and their high school receives a cash award of $5,000. You can find more information about how to nominate an outstanding teacher here.