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Teacher of the Year: Be a ‘star’ finder

Date: 
Thursday, January 25, 2018

Editor’s note: 2018 Teacher of the Year Aileen Sullivan of Ames was presented to the State Board of Education this morning. The following is her speech.

Good morning Director Wise and members of the Board. Thank you so much for inviting me to be part of your agenda today. As one of my first “official” duties as 2018 Teacher of the Year, it is truly an honor and a pleasure to be here. You as a Board have a mission to “champion excellence for all Iowa students through leadership and service” and the time and effort you put in to guiding schools and other agencies to this purpose is to be commended. Thank you on behalf of Iowa’s teachers. I am a product of an Iowa education from a small, rural school district in western Iowa to UNI as an undergraduate to ISU for a Master’s Degree. My Iowa education has served me well. I am humbled to represent the Ames School District and Iowa teachers and will serve as their proud and true representative of all we have to offer.

Like other superheroes, every teacher has an “origin story” detailing how they came upon their career. My story begins sometime around 1983 with my 3rd grade teacher. There was just something about her that helped me to love school even more than I thought I could. Her classroom was fun and wonderful and I wanted to have a classroom just like hers someday. And just like that, decision made, I was going to be a teacher. However, I did have some second thoughts once I left 3rd grade behind. In middle school I thought kids, including me, were just plain awful and I really started to waver once I found my aptitude for science and math. 

By the time I was a sophomore in high school, I was sure that I could do something other than teaching. In fact, that year I took an interest survey, like every other sophomore around, to figure out what I might do with my life. When I got the results back my top two career matches were “chemist” and “flight attendant.” Hmmmmm. What was I going to do with that? Then, finally, as a junior, I enrolled in chemistry class and it did not live up to what I had hoped and imagined. By the end of the first semester of my own high school chemistry experience, I had come back around to being a teacher. I knew that chemistry SHOULD be awesome and wonderful and we should do labs and understand stuff and I figured I could make that happen for other students. 

So it turns out, I didn’t really have to choose between “chemist” and “flight attendant.” As a chemistry teacher, I get to combine the two every day! In the years since, I have gotten to share my teaching choice many times over. Often, when someone finds out I’m a chemistry teacher, their face twists into a shape of horror, regret and disbelief, but I carry on, knowing that with my years of experience and a healthy dose of enthusiasm, I am still lucky and grateful to do what I love every single day. My goal is that in 20 years, when students in my classes meet someone who is a chemistry teacher, they smile fondly and harken back to the “good old days.” 

As I begin my time of service as Teacher of the Year, I have identified several areas regarding teachers and teaching that are worthy of time and attention. Student engagement in their own learning is truly important in today’s classroom. Each year, I observe students who are simply waiting to be told what to do. These students just want to be told “the answer;” they won’t take a risk to offer an answer and have it be wrong. They won’t talk to other students in the class because they think the teacher is responsible for their learning and they are passive partakers of their education. Brains are made for thinking and teachers must provide multiple opportunities every day for their students to think. The classroom always has been about student learning and students must be allowed ways to take control of what they learn. These actions will lead to increased student confidence and ability to take risks and tackle things about which they are unsure. Each day in the classroom should involve thinking about something new or connecting with something old in a new way. Every teacher can do this with every student every day.

Specifically, for teachers to foster student engagement, a shift needs to be made from teaching content for students to know toward teaching ideas and processes for them to learn. I will strive to share with others how this shift can be made, especially in the area of science. As a student myself, time and again, I was presented science content from the perspective of a teacher attempting to download their knowledge to me. They would “prepare me” for a chemistry demonstration by telling me what was going to happen and how amazing it was going to be. Then they would perform the demo and I would see exactly what they said I would, but it was not amazing because they had spoiled the experience already. The lesson they taught me was how disappointing it is to be told the ending before having a chance to see what happened. The direction of science teaching needs to change to the how and why of science; the processes that guide the scientific enterprise. The introduction to the Iowa Core Standards in science reflects that science is not just a body of knowledge but it is also a set of practices that should extend and refine that knowledge. Our Core in science is rich with opportunities to teach so that students can learn far beyond just “stuff” to know.

Engagement is closely linked to perspective. Throughout my time as a chemistry teacher, I have asked students to look at chemistry from three distinctly different viewpoints: macroscopic (what we observe); microscopic (particles we can’t see); and symbolic (how we represent the other two). Research supports that deep understanding of chemistry comes from being able to combine these three viewpoints.  In education, there are far more than three viewpoints for any given situation, but to be able to understand those other points of view makes for a deeper and complete awareness of what is going on. This is a practice in perspective. There is the perspective of the dutiful student versus the perspective of the engaged student. A teacher who can understand both of these student perspectives can help the dutiful become more engaged and help the engaged student achieve even more! As teacher of the year, I hope to share a message of perspective, as well as ideas and strategies to foster student engagement.

Teacher preparation is an area with which I have been engaged for many years as a host to pre-service interns and student teachers. Teacher preparation is extremely important and during my time with the Department of Education, I would like to work with our colleges and universities to help prepare the hearts and minds and hands of those that desire to teach. I also would hope to encourage more students to become teachers. Teaching is truly a career that is both challenging and extremely rewarding. However, fewer and fewer Iowa students are pursuing teaching as a profession and this fact needs to change. Pre-service teachers need to be mentored and supported well into their first few years of teaching. Support to retain teachers must be provided during the early career when our newest professionals are reaching their stride and discovering the wonderful profession of education. As professionals, we need to let our future educators know that they can be more than “just a teacher.”  Teaching allows for use of many skills and attributes and for constant learning and improvement. It is a profession that keeps on giving and growing and changing and can offer so much more than many ever expect.

At a recent Professional Development session in my District, the book Drive by Dan Pink was recommended as a means to explore and explain motivation. Pink’s insights into mastery, autonomy and purpose illustrate the difference between teachers who are dutiful and teachers who are engaged. Teachers can find the opportunity for mastery, autonomy and purpose in Iowa schools. New, developing and even veteran teachers have the means to be motivated professionals. To keep teachers in the classroom, it is critical that they be engaged with their work. 

Finally, STEM is something that would seem to be a natural fit for me as a science teacher. Science, Technology, Engineering and Math is often used to describe a curriculum or courses about which many have a different understanding. Admittedly, I am not an expert in STEM education or curricula, but what I have learned about STEM is that it encompasses excellent real-world applications. What I would take forward to share about STEM is how it ties in to the “real world” beyond the walls of our schools. 

The job list associated with STEM is long and varied, including things like data manager and dietician and even chemistry teacher. A commonality that can be applied to every classroom that leads to these careers is the inclusion of problem solving. The ability to apply knowledge, skills and processes to new and novel situations is at the heart of STEM education and is a sure way to prepare students for colleges and careers. I want to learn more about STEM in Iowa and help classrooms break away from routine, dutiful knowledge acquisition toward real-world problem solving skills that can move our students beyond their greatest expectations.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today. I believe in teachers. I believe in education. I’m still trying to believe how fortunate I am to be able to represent the teachers of Iowa in the coming year. A few years ago, while cleaning out some things from my grandmother’s house, I ran across an advice column. One of the gems from this little newspaper clipping was “Don’t be a fault finder, be a star finder.” I think this is pretty good advice especially in a world where fault can so easily be found. As an ambassador for education in our state, I want to serve as a star finder. When you start to look for them, the world is full of stars.  

I look forward to working as part of the Department of Education to learn from educators across the state as I share my enthusiasm, ideas and expertise. The students of Iowa will continue to grow and succeed if we spend time and energy to develop and support novice teachers, if we help students and teachers engage in learning, if we explore perspectives in education, and if we focus on application of learning beyond the walls of schools.

Thank you.

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Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on May 20, 2018 at 7:13am.