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National Teacher Calls for More Teacher-Leaders


Dr. Betsy Rogers, the 2003 National Teacher of the Year, wants to share with other educators and the public her passion for teaching and the need to provide a quality education for all students. Included: Rogers' views on quality teaching and education.

This year's National Teacher of the Year, Dr. Betsy Rogers, wants to convince teachers to be leaders in their schools and communities, and convince the public to fund school systems more equitably. She also is passionate about finding the right teaching method for each student.

A 29-year teaching veteran, Rogers is a first-and-second-grade looping teacher at Leeds Elementary School, in Jefferson County, Alabama. Rogers, the 53rd National Teacher of the Year, is the first to represent Alabama. In June, she began a year as a full-time national and international spokesperson for education.

National Teacher of the Year Dr. Betsy Rogers
Click here to read about Dr. Rogers' welcome-back-to-school speech to Simsbury, CT, educators.
The National Teacher of the Year Program, a project of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), is sponsored by Scholastic Inc. The program, which focuses attention on teaching excellence, is the nation's oldest awards program for teachers. Representatives from 15 leading education organizations in the United States choose the top teacher from among the State Teachers of the Year.

Rogers recently talked with Education World about her goals as teacher of the year.

Education World: What is your definition of a quality teacher?

Dr. Betsy Rogers: A quality teacher is first of all a person who views teaching as a calling, not just as a job. A quality teacher is dedicated to the students and to continually improving his or her teaching practice through ongoing professional development. A quality teacher is never satisfied with his or her practice and constantly seeks to improve teaching skills. A quality teacher sets high standards of accountability for herself or himself. A quality teacher recognizes the importance of building strong, positive relationships with parents. A quality teacher seeks opportunities to collaborate with colleagues and seeks opportunities to share with colleagues by presenting at faculty meetings and conferences. A quality teacher participates in professional organizations that build and strengthen our community of educators.

EW: Who or what inspired you to be an educator?

Rogers: I cannot remember a time when I did not want to be a teacher. From the time I lined up my dolls in front of my chalkboard and played teacher, I have been hooked on the teaching profession. The hours I spent as a child imitating my teachers are some of my happiest memories. I was strongly influenced by my teachers, especially the teachers I had in the first three grades. I adored those three very competent women and I named each new doll I got every Christmas after one of them. I still have the dolls and, hopefully, I will be able to share the story behind each namesake with future grandchildren.

The first sentence in my parent handbook is a quote from my first grade teacher, Miss Britton: "Children are like rosebuds; they do not all bloom at the same time, but the first bloom is just as pretty as the last." I have integrated Miss Britton's philosophy into my own. This is especially appropriate since I was the first teacher in my school to loop for two years with the same children, and I believe so strongly in giving children time to bloom.

Teaching is a way of life in my family. For years, my family told the story of how my 16-year-old grandmother taught students older than she in the hills of Alabama. Her two sisters followed her into the teaching profession. All three had to quit teaching when they married because of the regulations at the time. They continued to use their teaching skills in their church work. My mother joined their ranks as a Sunday school teacher, teaching 7-and 8-year-olds for more than 50 years. As a child, I spent many hours attending their Sunday school planning meetings. Their commitment to provide quality and inspiring lessons in a caring environment for the many young children they taught in Sunday school greatly influenced the standards I have set for myself as a teacher.

EW: What are your goals for your term as Teacher of the Year?

Rogers: I want to share all that is good about public education and bring attention to funding needs of our schools. The educational issue I feel most passionate about is the lack of equity in educational funding. It has been said, "Lincoln was not great because he was born in a log cabin, but because he was able to get out of it." Former President Lyndon Johnson said, "Poverty must not be the bar to learning, and learning must offer an escape from poverty." Today President George W. Bush's slogan for education is "No Child Left Behind." The schools of our nation were founded on the principle that all public schools should be open and free to all children of all people and each individual attending a school should have the opportunity to develop to his or her fullest potential. The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development states, " Schools are critical public sites for nurturing the hope for democracy by preparing students to participate fully in civic life and in building a better society."

Today in schools across America, all students do not have the same opportunity, due to the lack of equitable funding and the mismanagement of funds. The federal government funds less than 7 percent of elementary and secondary education. Therefore, funding is left up to the individual state and there is quite a large gap among the states concerning per pupil spending. In a federal study, the General Accounting Office reported that, in 37 states, more money was spent in wealthy districts than in poor districts, despite federal and state efforts to narrow funding gaps between poor and rich districts. The study also found that poor districts in many states actually tried harder to raise money than wealthier districts. Poor districts in 35 states made greater efforts than wealthy districts to increase educational taxes.

EW: What are the biggest challenges facing educators today?

Rogers: Meeting the very diverse needs of all students so each child experiences success, and meeting the requirements of unfunded mandates.

EW: What about teaching is harder today than when you started your career?

Rogers: After taking off six years to stay at home with my two sons, and teaching two years in a private kindergarten in Leeds, I returned to my first love -- teaching in public schools. However, I was not prepared for what I found after an eight-year absence. I was totally unprepared for the situations that the children in my first grade class at Leeds faced. The poverty, neglect, and abuse that many of my students experienced every day overwhelmed me. I wanted to change the world for them. It took me several years to realize I could not change the world in which they lived.

Understanding that school was the best place for many of those children, I became committed to making my classroom a haven of safety, as well as an environment that provided some joy to their unfortunate lives. I also made the commitment to build positive relationships with their families. I realized many of these families loved their children deeply and were often doing their best. Easier? I am a better teacher now due to my years of experience, continuing my formal education, and becoming a certified National Board Teacher.

EW: How would you characterize your educational philosophy?

Rogers: All children learn differently and at a different pace. It is my job as a teacher to find the best methods and materials for each child to master needed skills, as well as aid in social and emotional development. When I read in my class handbook my philosophy that I have been sharing with parents for the past 18 years, I know that it is actually more complex than it reads. My first sentence agrees with the existentialist view of the learner as a unique and free-choosing responsible creature made up of intellect and emotion. The role I describe for a teacher, "to find the best methods and materials for each child to master needed skills as well as aid in social and emotional development," is a combination of realism and existentialism.

The essence of my philosophy and the climate of my classroom are best described by the poem on the door of my classroom, which begins, "You are entering the world of a child..." I believe that children need to learn in a safe, caring, and intellectually engaging environment, with a teacher who is responsive to the needs of the children. I believe the teacher must embrace the whole child in a caring and positive manner for learning to occur. I believe the classroom environment should foster a climate that provides children with experiences that assist in developing the whole child. I also believe that the teacher must acknowledge the varying pace of each child's development.

As a teacher, the one pet peeve I have with other teachers is the statement," I taught them, they just didn't get it." I believe my role as a teacher is to find out why "they didn't get it." I use as many methods as needed to assure that my students do "get it."

EW: If you could change one thing in America's classrooms, what would it be?

Rogers: My message would be, "Our schools can be fixed!" Today, many in our country would prefer low performing schools to be closed and the students in those neighborhoods shipped off to other schools. Others feel that students should have a choice about where they attend school, rather than address the educational problems of their local communities. It is my belief that all children deserve in their neighborhoods quality schools that will not only serve as a place of learning, but as a haven of safety. I believe that educators along with the citizens of our country can make that happen.

Since being named Teacher of the Year, I have had the opportunity to spend many days in schools in my system that have been defined as priority schools by our state's accountability system. I have been dismayed at what I have observed in those schools. The schools appear dull and lifeless compared to the many beautiful schools I have visited. The very basic needs for a functional school --such as, daily schedules, routines, and communication -- are lacking in those schools. However, the hope I see in the eyes of the children in all schools is universal, and it is our responsibility to give those children an equal chance to succeed in our society.

EW: What message would you like to impart to America's teachers?

Rogers: In the 1970s, educator Ron Edmonds, coined the phrase, "All children can learn." In Roland Barth's booklet, "The Teacher Leader," he quotes an idea from Rhode Island teachers, which is, "All teachers can lead." Barth took this concept further by saying, "If schools are going to become the places where all children are learning in worthy ways, all teachers must lead."

During the past five years, two events in my life forced me to re-evaluate my responsibilities as a teacher leader. First, I returned to a university after a 24-year absence to complete three degrees. Those classes fostered and nurtured leadership abilities within me that I did not know I had, and taught me the importance of being a teacher leader. As a result, I was able to become a driving force for change in my school. I began by becoming a prominent member on our school's first Literacy Committee. I lead our committee in implementing a school-wide UNPLUG TV Campaign, Read Aloud Campaign, and Family Reading Nights.

During those campaigns, I created Weekly Parenting Tips that were sent home with each student. Understanding the need for data-driven decisions, I designed school-wide surveys for students, parents, and teachers following each campaign. I calculated and shared the results with all involved. I taught teachers how to complete an analysis comparing reading scores with the time students spent reading. That information was invaluable to our school as we re-evaluated and planned for future reading programs. In a faculty survey, it was evident that many believed that the literacy committee was the driving force for the literacy changes in our school's curriculum and climate.

The second change in my leadership role occurred during my completion and certification as a National Board Teacher. During this intense validation of my teaching practice, I became a changed and more effective teacher. Research clearly shows that the number one way to improve schools is to improve teachers. I feel strongly that the standards set by National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) are the standards to which all teachers should subscribe. I believe that as a certified NBPTS, I have the obligation to assist others in this endeavor. To accomplish this, I have presented the standards and opportunities provided by NBPTS to several faculties, professional organizations, and a statewide workshop.

This year, I will be part of our first system-wide mentoring program. I believe that the standards set by National Board are the standards that will reform education. As a NBPTS teacher, I need to model those standards, not only daily in my classroom, but during committee work and collaboration with colleagues. My goal is to be an active and effective teacher leader, so I can directly impact my school, its teachers, and most importantly the students As a teacher leader, I have embraced what Albert Shanker said, "As teachers, we must constantly improve schools and we must keep working at change and experimenting and trying until we have developed ways of reaching every child."

This e-interview with Dr. Betsy Rogers is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
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