As another school year begins, we reflect on what it means to be an outstanding teacher. What qualities does an outstanding educator possess? What impact do outstanding teachers have on their students, their school, their community, and the education profession? Drawing from their own statements, we found our 2015 Outstanding Teaching of the Humanities Award recipients share many common attributes that are admired by their peers and students alike.
Our teachers create a challenging, yet welcoming classroom environment, maintaining high standards and expectations for all of their students regardless of differing learning styles or backgrounds.
Robin Long, fourth and fifth grade teacher at Windermere Elementary School, Pflugerville: "My goal is to inspire humanities lovers: students who have an appreciation of the web of connectivity between life, literature, history, philosophy, and the arts. The education they receive in these vital, foundational courses will shape not only the lens through which they view themselves, but also their ultimate ideology, character, and both community and global perspectives. Our classroom focus is inquiry and project-based, critical in approach, and our topics are made to be authentic, accessible, and open-ended—all in an effort to create an exciting and intriguing environment in which enthusiastic students are encouraged to run with their impassioned questions."
Julie Campbell, Texas history teacher at West Ridge Middle School, Austin: "Every August, over a hundred twelve-year-olds walk in my door, most of them dreading a boring year of Texas history. I am not an easy teacher; I have high expectations. I challenge my students and ask them to do difficult critical thinking tasks. The accomplishments feel evident as kids return for a high-five or hug, knowing that I have engaged with them, challenged them, made Texas history a fun and memorable class, and given them opportunities to be life-long learners and critical thinkers themselves through deep explorations of the topics."
Todd Moulder, English teacher at Baker Middle School, Corpus Christi: "I have always believed that to be effective I have to look for ways to believe and support young adolescents and challenge and stretch them with rigorous tasks. Building relationships with my students is a key component to my work and I do this by listening, laughing, and talking with them about their thoughts and ideas about important cultural, historical, literary, and artistic texts and artifacts. I constantly think back to my liberal arts education in philosophy, history, literature, French, and art history as I seek to broaden the scope of my curriculum, cover the state TEKS, and teach from a deeply personal, meaningful, and connected angle."
Rebecca Ryan, sixth grade teacher at Mickey Leland College Preparatory Academy for Young Men, Houston: "Project based learning is the key to student engagement and success in my classroom. As students enter my classroom, it is important that they know that what we are covering is important to their lives and applies to the world around them. I teach my students to elicit understanding and apply knowledge through projects that address past, present, and future concerns of the world today."
Our teachers engage students in hands-on and innovative classroom activities that necessitate critical thinking and writing skills and inspire a love of learning.
Matthew Campbell, U.S. history teacher at Langham Creek High School, Houston: "It is my job as a teacher to show students that history is a fluid and an ever-changing narrative that is constantly being re-synthesized. Having a classroom of open and critical thinkers can be wondrous when it comes to placing meaning to historical content. I challenge my students to share opinions and encourage brainstorming sessions, group projects, and group presentations. It is my hope that students leave my classroom knowing what it means to be a collaborator. I encourage my students to ask questions, and I am straightforward about not having all the answers. Above all else, I challenge my students to understand that I am open to their thoughts, eager to hear their opinions, and thrilled to learn with and through them."
Justin Felux, world history teacher at Johnson High School, San Antonio: "Throughout the year we do role-playing lessons to make history come to life. In one instance, we do a TV talk show titled Istanbul Today, in which the students take on the role of various historical figures from the nineteenth century to debate how to rehabilitate the ailing Ottoman Empire. In another simulation, we perform a mock trial in which we judge whether or not Genghis Khan is guilty of crimes against humanity. One of my favorite ways to engage students is to expand our learning outside of the classroom. About four times a year, I take them on weekend field trips to the San Antonio Museum of Art. When students get to see first hand the giant marble sculptures created during the Roman Empire, they understand that history is truly something that is awe-inspiring and cool to learn."
Robin Long, fourth and fifth grade teacher at Windermere Elementary School, Pflugerville: "In our comprehensive approach to history and cultures, the children rotate through project-based stations that provide a thorough and extensive accessibility. The children may study King George's youth, then recreate his point of view on the colonies' behavior using their own student-created lyrics in an original music video, or produce a dramatic play showcasing Benedict Arnold's transition from hotheaded hero to public enemy. The goal in our studies is the realization that we are all fundamentally similar. Through our literature and philosophic thought, the critical analysis of debate, and the knowledge of how history built our society, the students see how these determine our points of view, create our artwork and theater, our songs, and the very essence of our cultures."
Todd Moulder, English teacher at Baker Middle School, Corpus Christi: "As a teacher of the humanities, my work with the Coastal Bend Writing Project (CBWP) enriches my classroom in innumerable ways. We believe that the best way to impact writing instruction is to work with teachers in the field who write with students and innovatively construct effective lessons. My work with the CBWP empowers me to continually improve my writing program. My students write magazine articles, newspaper editorials, young adult realistic fiction, memoirs, children's books, historical research papers, medical studies, poetry—the list goes on and on. But we do not just write these. We creatively and artistically reproduce them with quality, real world end-products. This final, empowering step engages students, infuses their writing with heightened importance, and creates pride."
Our teachers encourage students to develop an understanding of the world around them and their role in our global society.
Leslie Giesenschlag, geography teacher at Vandegrift High School, Austin: "Thinking like a geographer does not come naturally to most people. We have to train our brains to think spatially. We begin each day with a 'question of the day.' Each year students comment that this is their favorite part of class. The question of the day could be about the unit we are studying, something that happened in the news, or what the percentage of Americans that live within twenty miles of a Starbucks tells us about development and urbanization in our country. More important than getting the correct answer is how we get to the correct answer. In addition, I always push students to ask, 'How does this relate to geography?' 'What are the economic, social and cultural implications of our actions?' 'How can we be better global citizens?'"
Christopher T. F. Hanson, music theory and orchestra teacher at San Marcos High School, San Marcos: "My greatest accomplishments as a teacher have been the sense of enlightenment and intellectual freedom expressed by my students after taking one of my courses. In music theory I frequently hear students exclaim, 'I never realized that is why we do that!' or, 'So that explains where that comes from.' I passionately believe that the study and performance of music dramatically affects how a person understands and experiences the world.
Ann Mar, Spanish teacher at Alamo Heights High School, San Antonio: "As a Spanish teacher, my job is to help my students feel confident in their growing language skills and to guide them to reflect on and understand their own culture while learning about and appreciating the cultures of the Spanish-speaking world. This foundation will prepare them to engage effectively and respectfully in our multilingual world. By encouraging students to explore, analyze, discuss, and pick apart authentic materials like maps, comic strips, newspaper articles, video clips, poems, and more, I hope they will develop habits of mind they will employ in future studies, at work, and in life as they grow to appreciate our shared humanity across cultures."
Samantha Neal, English teacher at Coppell High School, Coppell: "In my opinion, a good English teacher helps her students see the relevance of the literature they read. But a great English teacher shows her students that they can take the lessons learned from great literature and use them to make positive impacts on the world around them. There is no doubt that great literature changes us. The real work comes in using literature to make changes in the world."
Rebecca Ryan, sixth grade teacher at Mickey Leland College Preparatory Academy for Young Men, Houston: "As we introduce each world region, students arrive to a classroom decorated to represent the new region. By using books, magazines, news clips and exciting programming, students become immersed in the culture of each world region. After the cultural absorption, students evaluate old problems and find new solutions dating back to history and through the present day. The images outside of the classroom windows become distant as I connect my students to the world. Instead of being afraid of the unknown, their exploration leads to excitement about the future."
Lucy Fischer West, world history teacher at Cathedral High School, El Paso: "During the first three weeks of school I establish relevance to the subject matter. I ask, 'Why does it matter that you learn world history?' Short answer: 'Because every day, you are writing your own history, and you need to understand what forces brought your family here, because, in reality, you're already part of world events.' My freshman boys interview family members from at least two generations to collect stories and then connect them to world history events. I want stories from them because our histories come from oral traditions and I want my students to listen to and value their own."
Our teachers foster an appreciation for the humanities and the role the humanities play in our everyday lives and extend learning opportunities beyond the classroom.
Becky Adams, AP literature teacher at Allen High School, Allen: "I adore my content and seek to share that passion daily, but in the grand scheme of life, the habits of mind and conscience and self-awareness cultivated in students are paramount. Lifelong friendships have blossomed between diverse students in my classroom, because discussing what it means to be human through the mirrors and windows literature affords requires vulnerability, tolerance, and self-confidence. I challenge students daily to interrogate what they believe, examine their own idiosyncratic responses and biases, and to become in every capacity who they are."
Christopher T. F. Hanson, music theory and orchestra teacher at San Marcos High School, San Marcos: "I take my orchestra students to the three productions of the Austin Opera Company each year, generously sponsored through their 'Access Opera' program. We discuss the composer and opera we are about to view, paying particular attention to the context in which the opera was composed. The history of the work, as we have discovered, is almost as important as the libretto to be performed. Opera is a musical and visual experience. From the costumes, to set design, lighting, blocking, choreography, tempos, et cetera, all are a magnanimous form of artistic expression to communicate life as art. The students revel in these performances as they learn to appreciate a new form of expression that spans a vast number of subjects and emotions."
Jacy King, history teacher at Chireno High School, Chireno: "Whenever I introduce an element of the humanities to a class, I quickly realize that this component fills my students with the most excitement and questions. They might not remember every detail of the Harlem Renaissance that I taught them years after graduation, but they will remember dancing the Charleston, listening to jazz music or poetry read by Langston Hughes. Smiling former students recall how loud the cannons were at the Civil War reenactment we attended or how they tried on monk costumes at the Spanish mission. Day trips have always ended in incredible memories. Since I have been with the same school district for over sixteen years, the small community has considered me a hub for collecting interviews, photos, and artifacts to share with the town's youth."
Rebecca Lacquey, U.S. history teacher at Katy High School, Katy: "As a teacher of the humanities, one of my most significant accomplishments is related to my sponsorship of the Katy High School History Club which is affiliated with the National History Club. I wanted to provide students with an opportunity to explore history in fun and unique ways while also providing them with experiences they would never forget. Over the years, I have come to realize that the history club represents a significant accomplishment because it encourages students to enjoy history beyond the classroom. It has allowed me to reach a variety of students and show them that the study of history and the humanities is fun, worthwhile, and enriching to their life."
Candace Tannous, English teacher at Cypress Woods High School, Houston: "When we place the human experience under the microscope of literature—as well as the realia of letters, essays, speeches, and the daily news—we can better empathize with the struggles and suffering of others. The themes of greed, selfishness, corruption, lust for power are found embedded in news stories everyday as well as acts of incredible courage, sacrifice, kindness, and generosity. I have a quote in my classroom by E. L. Doctorow which says: 'Historians tell you what happened. Novelists tell you what it felt like.' Looking back on my twenty-five years as an educator, it has been a deep honor to work with kids of all ages to help them experience the interrelatedness of the arts, literature, music, and history as a journey into the interior of the human heart."
For more information on Outstanding Teaching Awards, including eligibility and a list of current and past recipients, please visit the Teaching Awards section of our website or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For the love of learning
The Classroom Teacher, winter 2014-15
Whitney Crews, 2015 Texas Elementary Teacher of the Year
Whether it’s Trivia Tuesday or Famous Person Friday, TCTA member Whitney Crews is on a mission to share the world — and her love for learning — with her sixth-grade students in Lindale ISD.
“My prayer is that my students are learning to learn!” she says. “If they don’t know the answer, how do they find it? Where can education take them, and why is it something kids in other parts of the world are willing to walk miles or risk their lives to get?”
Crews, who was named the 2015 Texas Elementary Teacher of the Year (TOY) in October 2014, teaches science and social studies at E.J. Moss Intermediate School, where she has taught for the last 17 years of her 18-year career in education.
Here’s her take on teaching and TCTA:
Q: In your TOY essay, you wrote that many teachers feel unappreciated and overworked, and they seem to have lost their joy. How do you remain joyful?
A: I try to remember that every year brings a new group of students, and they deserve a teacher who enjoys what she’s doing. I try to pass along my love of learning because some would rather be doing something else or school is a struggle, and some have a lot going on at home. These students deserve a teacher who is willing to give it her all every day, no matter what is going on.
Q: How do you pass along your love for learning?
A: My colleagues once gave me a “Wild and Wacky” award for being willing to try new ideas. I am not afraid to say that what I am doing is not working … and even moving to plan B, or X, Y, Z! An outstanding teacher is well prepared so that he or she can wing it and go with the flow.
Q: You have been a TCTA member for 17 years and you served for several years as your local TCTA affiliate secretary/treasurer and as a faculty rep. Why did you volunteer with TCTA?
A: I want to be sure teachers are aware of what TCTA is and how TCTA represents us and is always advocating for teachers. I had to use the legal services when I was in a situation with a parent. How valuable it was to talk through that with an attorney! He gave me great advice and explained what my rights were. New teachers especially need to know that such benefits are available and that it’s important to be covered.
Q: What do you most look forward to about being Texas Elementary Teacher of the Year?
A: I want to visit colleges and talk to future teachers about the realities of teaching that they don’t teach in college. How do you handle a parent conference? What’s it like to sit in an interview? How do you motivate a struggling student? I want to give them the reality of the profession so they’re better prepared.
Q: What do you want to say to your fellow teachers?
A: Thank you! It’s important for people to know that just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to raise a teacher. I don’t do this by myself. I have an amazing subject matter partner and we bounce ideas off of each other. Teachers are always working together. It’s a team effort, and it takes all of us to achieve our goals for our students. Even if I’m getting the recognition now, I didn’t get here by myself, so thank you!
Learn more about Whitney Crews by watching her TOY videos produced by Lindale ISD and Region 7.
Christine Amerson, 2015 Texas Secondary Teacher of the Year Finalist
TCTA members named 2015 Regional Teachers of the Year