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Teacher of the Year Aims to Celebrate Teachers, Teaching

National Teacher of the Year Kathy Mellor, an English as a second language teacher in Rhode Island, is eager to spend her term celebrating teachers and teaching and encouraging school-community partnerships to improve education. Included: Views on quality teachers and teaching.

The 2004 National Teacher of the Year, Kathy Mellor, is looking forward to a year of promoting teachers and teaching. Rhode Island's first National Teacher of the Year, Mellor is an English as a second language teacher at Davisville Middle School in North Kingston. She set her sights on teaching at the age of 4, inspired by her kindergarten teacher and parents. Colleagues praise her as a "tireless" advocate for ESL programs.

Kathy Mellor receives the National Teacher of the Year award from President Bush and Mrs. Bush.
(Photo courtesy of Council of Chief State School Officers)

Mellor will spend the next year representing the teaching profession nationally and internationally. The National Teacher of the Year program is a project of the Council of Chief State School Officers and sponsored by Scholastic Inc.

Mellor took some time to talk with Education World before her busy term got under way.

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

Kathy Mellor: One goal for my term is to stress the importance of teachers, parents, administrators, and the community working in partnerships that define goals and the means of achieving them, as well as working proactively toward resolution of any problems and concerns. A second goal is to applaud good teaching, which is timeless regardless of particular programs and styles that go in and out of vogue. Current research supports the idea that teachers are the most important factor in effective classrooms.

EW: Who inspired you to become an educator?

Mellor: My kindergarten teacher inspired me to become a teacher. She conducted a kindergarten class for three years out of her house when she was home with her own little children. Even at the tender age of 4, I was impressed with the teaching profession because she appeared to be having as much fun as we were. She taught us to read, making it seem effortless, so I knew she had to be magical. Of course, I wanted to be magical, too! My parents also were an inspiration. They valued education and spoke openly about the value of education, as well as about what a great profession teaching must be. Other teachers I had confirmed that for me.

EW: What is your definition of a quality teacher?

Mellor: A quality teacher is someone who is knowledgeable of the subject matter and skilled in the craft of teaching. A quality teacher needs to make a connection with students that will enhance, not hinder, learning by welcoming them into a classroom that is productive, peaceful, and safe. A quality teacher knows the importance of being clear and explicit about expectations and about the teacher's role as a good teacher and about how vital it is for the children to do their job as good students. A quality teacher can put himself or herself back behind the desk to become the student again, in order to see things from a child's perspective. A quality teacher validates students, where they come from and how much they can accomplish. A quality teacher realizes that the partnership formed with parents is crucial to the academic success of the students.

EW: How, if at all, have your goals as an educator changed since you began teaching?

Mellor: My goals are pretty much the same now as when I began teaching. Knowing that I can make a difference in students' abilities to learn and do well academically validates me everyday. There is such a tremendous amount of growth and progress in ESL students. That is so rewarding to witness as a teacher. I can't imagine doing anything else!

I always have enjoyed the support of my administrators (who have the authority to make change) and my colleagues, without whom my program never would have been as effective as it is. Those partnerships have been invaluable to me, to my students, and to the program.

EW: What makes a good day for you?

Mellor: A good day for me is when the kids are on target, engaged in the activity and confident about what they can do. Most days are like that, fortunately. Not all, but most.

"Knowing that I can make a difference in students' abilities to learn and do well academically validates me everyday," says Kathy Mellor, the 2004 National Teacher of the Year.

EW: What are the biggest challenges facing educators today?

Mellor: Although there are many issues facing educators today, I feel that the challenge of maximizing student growth regardless of ability level, previous achievement, or [prior] learning is becoming more and more of a concern. Many children, through no fault of their own, enter school withbackgrounds that preclude them from benefiting fully from what the schools have to offer. Providing an equitable education to all students as public schools become more diverse is a pervasive educational concern. It touches every grade level, every content area, and every region of the country. We all know that equitable education is not only everyone's right, but also essential to social and economic advancement. It should not be a function of where, when, or to whom one was born.

EW: If you had the chance, what would you change in America's classrooms?

Mellor: I think if I could change anything, I would like to see more looping and multi-aged groupings, particularly at the primary and elementary level. As a youngster -- due to large enrollments and teacher shortages -- I had the same teacher for third, fourth, and fifth grade. In addition, my third, fourth, and sixth grades were split grades. Sometimes, my teacher grouped us together and other times taught us separately. I learned a great deal by osmosis, both by watching when the teacher taught the other group and when she taught us all together.

As an ESL teacher, I group students according to proficiency levels and reading levels. Often, there are two or three small groups in a class at the same time. Older, more proficient students help out and serve as mentors, for younger, less proficient students. They learn so much from one another. I also feel that, with such a wide range of developmental differences, looping and multi-aged groupings better allow for individual differences so students can progress more at their own rates.

This e-interview with Kathy Mellor 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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