Six questions for 2016 Teacher of the Year Scott Slechta
Scott Slechta has taught for 35 years – 31 of them at Fairfield High School. An Iowa native, Slechta was drawn to education early on. Indeed, if you look at his life, virtually everything he has done has been education related, whether as a teacher or his other incarnations as a lifeguard, camp counselor or drama instructor.
He challenges his students in his English language arts classes every day. But perhaps even more important, he challenges himself – reflecting after each and every class to see how it could be done better.
Slechta, 57, lives in Fairfield with his wife, Tricia; they have four children, Margaret Way, Emily, Claire and Price.
What led you to the teaching profession?
My family and upbringing were the first factors to influence me in pursuing my career. I was raised on a farm, and my parents instilled in me a strong work ethic. They further instilled the importance of education. My father attended and completed his eighth grade education in a one-room school close to our family farm. My mother attended a county seat school then completed a commercial degree. After their marriage, they raised their family.
Through good examples and high expectations, my foundation was established. My second influence were my aunts. They cared for me when my mother came down with cancer several times (she remains a survivor – at age 95). From them I gained many other qualities: Aunt Lorane was a one-room school teacher and office manager, she taught me the importance of responsibility and organization; Aunt Opal worked as a store clerk, she taught me the importance of humor and the importance of people; and Aunt Wiladene was a housewife, and she taught me the importance of community involvement.
My third influence were my teachers. My elementary-to-college teachers taught me to embrace learning and to love language arts. In elementary school Miss Buck, my first grade teacher, had us always involved in the learning process; in middle school, Mrs. Wenzel taught me the English language structure; in high school, Mrs. Ouverson taught me advanced reading and writing skills and Miss Klopfenstein taught me creativity; in college Drs. Koch and Gruber taught me the mysteries of American and English literature and Dr. and Kalpakgian unwove the wonders of Shakespeare; in my graduate work Drs. Beckman and LaRoque taught me how to teach!
In addition, all of the colleagues with whom I have worked have contributed to my understanding of teaching and learning. But most important, all of my students have been my main influence. Through my daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly job of teaching, I must be constantly aware of my students’ learning, their successes and their failures. I must adjust, modify, and adapt my teaching in to elicit from my students the best of their learning.
How has education evolved in Iowa from the time you were a student to today?
Education has evolved from teacher-directed to student-centered, from rows of desks for listening to lectures to tables for collaboration, from school or teacher choice of content to alignment to the core curriculum, and technology!
As a veteran teacher, how do you keep your lessons – and your mindset – fresh and engaging?
I constantly reflect and plan, problem solve and establish goals. In this way, the teaching and the learning is always dynamic.
Have your lessons or approach to teaching changed over the years? How so?
Yes! I have had many influences that have caused me to change: achievement of national board certification, initiatives such a backward design to planning and focus on Charlotte Danielson's approach to learning, our school focus on Authentic Intellectual Work, and my involvement with the Teacher Induction Program and Journey to Excellence.
Less than six months ago, my school underwent major renovation, remodeling, and reconstruction. We were surrounded by the sound of jack hammering and power machinery. Workers puttied and plastered; others removed old duct work and obsolete plumbing. While the school was deconstructed, it was simultaneously rebuilt. The community decided to keep the original 1942 art-deco building and modernize it to meet 21st century needs. A new science wing, a physical education addition, and a fine arts complex caused an overall change of room assignments. When the school opened Aug. 31, the outside façade was beautiful, but the inside was filled with updates and upgrades. Thought and insight, planning and designing went into developing the blueprints and determining the contractors.
Though the school has changes to the physical structure, it is the faculty and administrators along with the students who will make the changes to the mental structure. And though the community approved the funding, the faculty contributed ideas for a better school for our students.
I can compare my feelings and beliefs to my school’s remodeling and renovation project. I have a strong foundation based on experience and in tradition. I have experienced many trends, and I have jumped on many educational bandwagons. In each learning opportunity, I have taken away what is good and what is real in helping students to learn. I have continued my learning through continued education courses that I’ve taken.
My new learning causes me to ever change and ever grow as a teacher. I develop new ideas to replace old ideas. I identify what is antiquated and further identify what is innovative. As a teacher, I undergo deconstruction and rebuilding in what I do and how I do it. And though my community and teachers support me, I create my own blueprint for my remodeling and renovation to make me be a better teacher for my students.
What is your philosophy about teaching?
My message would be to teachers and administrators, students and parents, and all others committed to education: Everyone should acknowledge what has happened in education, be aware of what is happening in education, and be a part of what will happen in education.
Take farming techniques that my father used in 1940 – they were good for the day. But as farming techniques changed and technology advanced, my father utilized those changes which made farming more efficient and more effective. He embraced those methods that resulted in higher yields.
In this same way, I as a teacher must acknowledge what was good, but embrace what is new that results in higher achievement. We must learn innovative methodology to reflect the new norms while keeping the student at the center of instruction, assessment, and technology enrichment. Teachers must also keep the students at the center as special and unique individuals with dreams, hopes, and aspirations.
We as teachers must take pride in our students. Their accomplishments are always important for continued success. In Composition II, students’ accomplishments can range from fulfilling the various requirements for a literary analysis to completion of a Chicago formatted collaborative cause-effect history report.
In a science class, a student may memorize the periodic table and another student may balance chemical equations. Yet for some students accomplishments may be incremental. If a student usually misses school three days a week, but changes to missing school only two days a week, this may be an important advancement – attendance leads to accomplishment.
We, as teachers, should take pride in the profession. We should not settle for mediocrity from ourselves or from our colleagues. We must be catalysts to affect student learning.
We as teachers also should take pride in ourselves. Teaching is a highly respected career. We should not allow for ourselves to become complacent, but instead to become dynamic.
Since I have achieved national board certification, I know the importance of reflective practice and the results of accomplished teaching. I know the importance of consistency and continuity as well as growth and change. But no matter my involvement or experience, we as teachers must look at what we do each day through both a telescope and a microscope. We must look with scrutiny what we teach in terms of content knowledge and how we manage the classroom. We must also look at our own teaching and our students’ learning in a broader, more global sense.
What advice would you give an entry-level teacher?
Graduation from college and securing your first job is a beginning – not an ending. Beginning educators know a lot, but they don't know everything. Listen to others, listen to students, listen to parents. Ask questions to all -- and then reflect and respond in any decision making or problem solving.