Saturday, July 14, 2007

Florida's Teachers of the Year

I have just returned from Orlando, FL where I have met some of the most outstanding teachers in our state. It was an educational love fest as Macys, the Florida Lottery and the Florida Department of Education spent three days celebrating teachers and announcing the new Florida Teacher of the Year.

This year Duval County was represented by first grade teacher Michelle Stinson. I have had the honor of being in Michelle's classroom. I remember driving up to Kite Elementary School. It's an older school but in this case, older is better. Kite sits up on a hill and is beautifully kept. From the moment the principal, dynamo Erdine Johnson, met us at the door, I was impressed by the clean, neat hallways. The school sparkles with charm. Walking into Michelle's room I immediately compared her classroom to our own primary classrooms at Chets Creek. Every nook and cranny in her room was filled with the the same bright teacher-made charts and student work that I see on our walls. Her class was neat and clean, a polished learning space for young children. Her class was homogeneous as engaged first graders, in hues from the lightest honey to the darkest, richest chocolate, followed their teacher's every move. Our classes at Chets Creek by comparison look more like the United Nations with 31% of our children speaking over 20 different languages, but the engagement is the same. We happened into Michelle's Skills Block. She uses rhythms, rhymes, movement and enthusiasm to teach Phonemic Awareness and Phonics. Her activities were short, fun and full of energy. I found myself singing her chants and songs in my car on the way home! You can feel the electricity and connection between Michelle and her students. What I learned that day is that best practices are best practices, regardless of who the children are or where the school is located.

Rick Ellenberg, a fifth grade Science Resource Teacher, was named the 2008 Florida Teacher of the Year. Rick has been a kindergarten teacher (gotta love a guy that's spent time with the little people!) and is married to a kindergarten teacher. Rick and his wife both teach at Camelot Elementary (!) in Orange County. As I listened to Rick over the three days, I could envision his rich learning environment that spills outside into his garden. He reminded me of how important it is to give our kindergartners hands-on activities that teach them about the world they live in. I can't wait to see Rick's enthusiasm for Science spread across the state.

And finally, Frank Brogan presented the Mary Brogan Award for Teaching Excellence to kindergarten teacher, Anna Phillips, of St. Lucie County. Through tears Anna told her own story of being raised in a Children's Home. Young Anna also suffered from a speech impediment and visual difficulties, but a fourth grade teacher saw the promise deep inside Anna. She told Anna that she could be anything she wanted to be and Anna held tight to that dream. She wanted to be a teacher. As she faced obstacles all along the way, Anna drew strength from her fourth grade teacher. Because that one teacher poured so much into an empty child, Anna is able to pour that same love and strength into the kindergartners that she sees every day. Anna was such an inspirational reminder of how one teacher can change the life of a child.

I guess that was the lesson this week. Great teachers come in all shapes and sizes and ages, but great teaching is alive and well in our state. As I think back, I can't remember one mention of the FCAT (!) even through Florida Commissioner of Education Jeanine Blomberg and State Board Member Donna Callaway were with us all three days, even though Lt. Governor Jeff Kottkamp spoke to the group, even though the best teachers in Florida were gathered together. They spoke instead about changing the world one child at a time, of making a difference in a child's life, and of the passion that they feel for the mission they call their life's work. It really is a great time to teach in Florida!

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