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Teacher of the Year Andy Baumgartner: On Education, Accountability, and Sleeping Beauty

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1999 Teacher of the Year Andy Baumgartner knows how to relate to young children. An enthusiastic educator with 23 years of experience, he is only the second kindergarten teacher to be selected in the award's 48-year history.

Baumgartner credits the influence of his family and his own experiences as a parent with helping him to become a successful educator. This week, Education World writer Cara Bafile offers an exclusive interview with the 1999 Teacher of the Year!

Andy Baumgartner
"The biggest kick in teaching comes when I look into the face of a young child and watch confusion turn to concentration, concentration to surprise, and finally, surprise into the pride of accomplishment."
---- Andy Baumgartner, 1999 National Teacher of the Year

On April 19, 1999, President Clinton presented the National Teacher of the Year honor to Andy Baumgartner, a kindergarten teacher from A. Brian Merry Elementary School in Augusta, Georgia. An enthusiastic educator with 23 years of experience, he is only the second kindergarten teacher to be selected in the award's 48-year history.

Baumgartner's background as a former Marine and the parent of a child with learning disabilities has given him a unique perspective on the education of young children.

Baumgartner - Teacher of the Year Taking on what some would consider the typically "female" role of kindergarten teacher, he has found that his presence provides a key male role model that is missing in many children's lives. His creativity and exuberance make his classroom a warm and wonderful learning space!

Having completed only the first few months of his tenure as Teacher of the Year, Baumgartner recently took time away from his busy schedule of appearances to participate in an email interview with Education World. During the exchange, he shared his story as an educator, his views on accountability, and improvements he would like to see in the education of future teachers.

Education World: Who inspired you to become a teacher?

Andy Baumgartner: In my life, I have been fortunate to have many influences of the right kind, for which I am very grateful. I am one of six children of a devout Lutheran minister and a nurturing mother. Pop taught us that a service career was one way of paying back all of the blessings that were placed in our lives. He is a man of very strong convictions and taught me the importance of tenacity and advocacy in achieving professional success. Mom taught us how to be nurturers. She encouraged me to be true to myself; and that gentleness and consideration of others can be masculine as well as feminine traits. My brothers and sisters have been a source of support and strength throughout my life. They have commiserated with and assisted me during times of turmoil and have celebrated with me in times of joy. I am a proud product of the public schools and college system of Georgia and have been blessed to have known and studied under an array of excellent teachers. It is their combined influence and model that have guided my teaching style.

EW: How has your personal experience as a parent influenced your teaching?

Baumgartner: As the parent of three very different sons, I have learned that the most important qualities for a teacher to possess are knowledge of and appreciation for the differences in personalities and in learning styles that exist both within families and classrooms. As the father of a severely mentally challenged son of 23, I have been made joyously aware of how responsive and considerate our public schools can be to the needs of some of our most challenging students and their families. As the father of a 21-year-old learning disabled son with an attention deficit, I have been made painfully aware of the difficulties our schools still have in meeting the needs of all students, and how detrimental failure in school can be to an entire family. As the father of an above average son of 16, I have been made aware of the importance that extra curricular activities such as drama, band, and chorus can make in developing positive attitudes about school and how well they lend themselves to building skills and characteristics important to scholarship. I have also been exposed to the unfortunate way in which those programs are forced to take a back seat to athletics and are rarely funded or supported equally by our schools and communities. Because of these factors, I have tried to help all of my students drink from the cup of success. I have used the type of education I would want for my boys as a model to attempt to live up to in my own teaching. And I continually attempt to help others understand the importance of establishing a classroom environment that assures the protection of the individual's dignity.

EW: A man, and a former Marine, teaching kindergarten? How do you take advantage of your unique background, and what are the benefits to your students?

Baumgartner: As a male teacher in primary school, I am in the unique position of knowing what it really means to be "big man on campus." So many of our children are hungry for relationships with caring adult males because that is missing from their home lives. My students provide me with a constant supply of affectionate attention. They also help me to remember that the world is a wonderful place full of adventure and exciting things waiting to be discovered anew. Five-year-olds are most often happy and eager to learn and have not yet been sullied by negative influences. The Marines, along with all of my life experiences, played a part in developing my character and helped me to acquire the strength to remain an individual and to stand up for the causes in which I strongly believe.

EW: Is it true that you once held a wedding for Sleeping Beauty in your classroom?

Baumgartner: My class did hold a wedding for Sleeping Beauty that was attended by many famous personalities from Mother Goose Land and at which there was a reception complete with wedding cake, rice, photographers, and wedding gifts from other classes. Another of my classes of grateful fairy tale and nursery rhyme characters held a knighting ceremony for Jack after he killed the giant and saved their kingdom. I have tried anything and everything to capture the attention, imagination, and capabilities of my students. I believe every learning day should be FUN and filled with excited chatter, laughter, and discovery!!

EW: What is your teaching "motto" -- the philosophy that keeps you coming back each day with new and exciting plans for your students?

Baumgartner: As a teacher I have the joy-filled opportunity and the awesome responsibility of molding individuals and groups of students. I can make an impact on the future by encouraging children to enjoy school and love learning! I believe that the public schools are our greatest hope for a productive and prosperous future.

EW: Do you have any advice for teachers who, like you, work in schools where a large population of the children are facing poverty?

Baumgartner: The most important advice that I can give to any teacher is that they must always look for and celebrate their successes, no matter how small or sparse. Ours is not a profession that provides a great deal of validation or gratitude but it can provide a wealth of gratification. I would encourage every teacher to remember that in many cases we are the most influential adults in our students' lives and, as such, must be strong advocates for the rights and well-being of all children.

EW: What can be done to promote a feeling of accountability for student achievement among all members of the public education community -- teachers, administrators, parents, and others?

Baumgartner: In any discussion of accountability, it is essential to first dispel the myths and then to clearly define the players and their respective responsibilities. Despite suggestions to the contrary, no one sets higher standards for students or higher accountability for teachers than effective teachers do -- for it is teachers who suffer the most from a lack of accountability. An ineffective teacher on the grade level below is a poor base on which to build. An ineffective teacher on the grade level above is work and time gone to waste. An ineffective teacher on the same grade level weakens an entire team. And a perception that teachers are not meeting desired standards or accountability factors downgrades the entire profession. But what teachers want others to realize is that their ability to be accountable can be influenced by conditions over which they have no control. Overcrowding, lack of materials and planning time, and a tremendous decline in respect and support are frequent and legitimate concerns voiced by today's teachers.

EW: What improvements would you recommend in the education of future teachers?

Baumgartner: Teacher preparation is one of the most interesting topics that is currently being considered in education. I would certainly agree with those who would insist on much longer periods of training time in actual school settings (as opposed to college classrooms or lab schools). Professors of future teachers must come from the "real world" school experience to truly be effective and they should be required to return throughout their tenure. And graduates from schools of education should serve internships and residencies before being fully certified. We must also look at alternatives to the too often used system of placing the teachers with the least amount of experience in the most difficult teaching situations. We must provide mentors for both new and discouraged teachers. We must significantly change the continuing education and professional development of teachers to reflect their distinctly different needs. Finally, the means by which we measure effective teaching must be improved. Administrators need more time for and more training in observing and evaluating teachers. They must then be given the authority to use differential treatment with teachers. The effective should be supported, encouraged, and used for modeling and mentoring while the ineffective receive intervention training or are removed from the classroom.

Baumgartner and President ClintonEW: What have been the highlights for you during your tenure as the Georgia Teacher of the Year and now National Teacher of the Year?

Baumgartner: Having had the opportunity to meet the President and the First Lady, as well as two governors of Georgia and several congressmen and legislators, has been an exciting proposition for my entire family. To receive validation, congratulations, and thanks in so many wonderful and different ways is certainly a dream come true. To be offered the opportunity to represent and advocate for my profession is a measurement of success that is realized by too few teachers. But the best part, for me, has been the opportunity to travel my state, and now the country, to meet so many of my peers and learn from them while observing them in action. I am in the remarkable position of having observed firsthand that our profession is filled with intelligent, talented, energetic, creative, and nurturing individuals who believe in themselves and in the children they teach and are enthusiastically optimistic about the possibilities for the future.

EW: When your tenure is over, what do you plan to do? Will you be returning to the classroom?

Baumgartner: In August, 2000, I plan to return to my kindergarten classroom at A. Brian Merry Elementary School to take up my place on the finest faculty I know. I am excited by the possibility of using all that I have learned in this two-year experience to upgrade my performance as a classroom teacher. I am also looking forward to being a full-time husband and father.

MORE FROM BAUMGARTNER

Click here for some additional thoughts about education from Andy Baumgartner, 1999 Teacher of the Year.

THE NATIONAL TEACHER OF THE YEAR PROGRAM

The National Teacher of the Year Program began in 1952 and continues as the oldest, most prestigious national honors program that focuses public attention on excellence in teaching. The National Teacher of the Year is chosen from among the State Teachers of the Year by a national selection committee representing the major national education organizations. Each April, the National Teacher of the Year is introduced to the American people by the President of the United States. The National Teacher of the Year is released from classroom duties during the year of recognition to travel nationally and internationally as a spokesperson for the teaching profession. All activities of the National Teacher, and projects involving the State Teachers of the Year, are coordinated through the National Teacher of the Year Program. The program is sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers and Scholastic Inc.

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
Copyright © 1999 Education World

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