What makes an excellent teacher? This year’s annual “Teach for Excellence! Teach for Change!” forum March 5 brought together area educators to learn tips from Southern Maryland’s Teachers of the Year. Each year, the Department of Educational Studies and the Student Education Association (SEA) of St Mary’s College of Maryland host the forum to explore the profession of teaching and the world of schools.
Guest workshop leaders included the 2010 Maryland Teacher of the Year, Dr. Jennifer Rankin of Garrett County, and keynote speaker Kenneth Bernstein, the 2010 Washington Post Agnes Meyer Teacher of the Year from Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Prince George’s County. Each speaker presented a lesson for the first 30 minutes, using workshop attendees as the class. They then described the strategies they use to make lessons so successful with students year after year. Those attending included faculty from public schools and the college’s Educational Studies Department, and undergraduate and graduate students from St. Mary’s.
The keynote speaker, Ken Bernstein, talked of the importance of connecting and building relationships with students. He challenged a quote by Microsoft’s Bill Gates that teachers reach a plateau of growth after the third year in the profession. Bernstein outlined the opportunities he himself has taken for continued professional growth. They included National Endowment for the Humanities summer sessions, graduate work, and leadership in his department and school. Great teachers, he believes, own the continuous need for reflection: How well did today’s lesson go, what changes will help?
Bernstein’s workshop, “My First Academic Day Each Year,” was an enactment of a Socratic debate on the definition of justice. Definitions of ‘what’s fair’ and ‘punishment for breaking the law’ were broken down until the group realized how agreements about the sharing of power must underlie any system of justice.
Rankin led a workshop on “Words and Numbers,” reflecting her teaching of both English and Algebra at Northern Middle School. She emphasized that manipulatives and concrete story problems allow students to more easily grasp the intricacies of algebraic equations.
Margo Gross, Calvert County 2009 Teacher of the Year, introduced methods of differentiation, or how to successfully approach elementary classrooms with children of all abilities. One strategy she demonstrated was the creation of text packets which presented the same information but were written at different reading levels. Children would see the same illustration on the front of their packets and feel they all were dealing with the same concepts. She emphasized the critical need for teachers to know the skills and interests of each child.
Radhika Plakkot, 2008 Calvert County Teacher of the Year and the 2010 Maryland science teacher of the year, gave a lesson on mitosis designed for a high school biology class. She emphasized that actually ‘doing’ the processes described in the written text allows students of all abilities to internalize the meaning of the text information. She encouraged participants to use everyday articles, such as beads and yarn, to create models of the chemical process.
Leah Rempert, 2008 Prince George’s County Teacher of the Year, demonstrated how teachers can quickly adapt a ‘perfect’ lesson which actually fails when students begin to move into the material.
And Mark Howell, 2011 Charles County Teacher of the Year, delivered a workshop with the provocative title “Dr. Seuss and Hitler’s Rise to Power.” He modeled how to use vivid, colorful visuals to capture students’ attention. He began with materials that students knew − Dr. Seuss as a children’s author − and moved to Dr. Seuss as a political cartoonist in the years prior to World War II. His materials highlighted how Hitler used quotes, events, and media to convince the citizens of Germany that he had their best interests at heart. Participants were challenged to think critically about historical figures.
Student participants left with a deeper sense of how to rise to the challenges of nurturing learning in children of all ages.