Top teachers offer blueprint for success

OXFORD – Teachers often see potential in their students that others may miss, and some some educators, such as the national and state teachers of the year, are helping their colleagues find new ways to do so.
More than 50 people came to hear Sarah Brown Wessling, the 2010 national teacher of the year, and Birdette Hughey, Mississippi’s 2011 teacher of the year, speak recently at the University of Mississippi about the importance of education to a strong democracy, and also to call on students to consider the teaching profession.
Wessling’s presentation, “Teaching in the Spaces: Learning, Teaching, Leading,” covered the need to find unique ways to teach 21st-century students and was sponsored by the UM School of Education.
“We must learn to bring poetry to the profession, because our learners are worth being listened to,” said Wessling, who as national teacher of the year is on sabbatical through the end of the 2010-11 school year while she travels to work with teachers and their students.
Wessling advocates a “learning-tailored environment” and encourages teachers not to grade homework. This allows students to learn and make mistakes without fear of failing, she said.
“Each student acquires information in a different way,” she said, adding that she tries to adapt her teaching methods to students’ specific needs. She incorporates everything from singing to Facebook and individualized podcasts for her students.
“Today’s students are bombarded with electronic devices and technology of every type,” said Wessling, who was named Iowa teacher of the year in October. “It is doubly important to find a unique way to capture their attention and keep them ‘present’ and involved in the learning process.”
A five-year high school English teacher, Wessling’s learning-tailored teaching style was recognized by President Barack Obama last spring, when she was tapped for the national award.
“Her students don’t just write five-paragraph essays, but they write songs, public service announcements, film story boards, even grant proposals for their own not-for-profit organizations,” Obama said at the presentation.
Over the past 10 months, Wessling has visited 34 states and three countries and has made 214 speaking engagements. During that time, she not only shared her experiences and best practices, but she also educated herself on new ideas and practices to incorporate into her own teaching, she said. Her tenure as national teacher of the year ends in May.
A Greenwood High School algebra teacher, Hughey discussed her nontraditional route to the classroom. Hughey joined the teaching profession after participating in the Teach for America program. Before her Teach for America experience, she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration from Florida Aamp&M University and worked several years for Johnson amp& Johnson.
Hughey, who has taught for two years, said her route to the classroom was “by no means traditional.”
“When I left the corporate world, I was convinced that I had the heart to serve in the field of education,” she said. “I wanted to be the Michael Jordan of teaching.”
Hughey said she hopes she brings passion, energy and dedication to her students. Recent assessment results indicate that 86 percent of students taking her course scored at the proficient or advanced levels.
Hughey said she left the corporate world for a quality career.
“Teaching is, without a doubt, a transformational career,” she said. “We not only impact students’ high school lives, but their college and professional careers. It’s not just about teaching Algebra I. It’s about teaching our students to be second to none locally, nationally and internationally.”
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UM School of Education Dean David Rock said the event was an incredible opportunity for teachers and future teachers to hear from some of the best in the field.
“Simply amazing,” he said. “Students in Oxford and our DeSoto campus were completely captivated by Sarah’s demonstrations, and some students stayed to see multiple presentations because Sarah was that impressive. We were blessed to have both Sarah and Birdette speak to our students and faculty, and we hope to see Birdette return to Ole Miss as the 2012 National Teacher of the Year.”
Rock added it was the first time the National Teacher of the Year has visited the Ole Miss campus, and the School of Education hopes to make it an annual event for the university and the community.

Deborah Purnell/University of Mississippi