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Teacher Wins $100,000 for Excellence


The Kinders of Texas believe excellent teachers deserve six-figure salaries, the same as other professionals. They decided to award $100,000 to an outstanding educator, kindergarten teacher Linda Alston of the Denver, Colorado, schools. Included: A description of the award-winning teacher's goals and expectations.

Nancy and Rich Kinder of Houston, Texas, believe that teachers deserve to earn as much as other professionals, meaning six-figure salaries. So the Kinders decided to start a trend by establishing the Kinder Excellence in Teaching Award, in honor of Rich Kinder's mother, a former teacher, and bestow $100,000 on an outstanding teacher working in an underserved community. It is the largest single, unrestricted award given to a K-12 teacher in American history. The Kinder's had planned for their gift to be a one-time award, but they are reconsidering, and expect to announce their plans in September.

Linda Alston

The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) Foundation administered the selection process for the award. The Kinder award was created to recognize "innovative and results-oriented teaching and to raise public awareness of the importance of effective and committed teachers," according to information on the award's Web site. A panel of educators was created to select the winner.

The Kinder award recipient, Linda Alston, was a kindergarten teacher with 20 years experience at Fairview Elementary School in the Denver Public Schools' system. She was cited in part for the high standards she sets for her students. Alston is using the summer months to decide on her future plans.

Alston talked with Education World about her award and her vision for her students and her own career.

Education World: What was your reaction to winning the Kinder Excellence in Teaching award? Who nominated you?

Linda Alston: I call my reaction clinically diagnosable shock. It was quite amusing because I was really having fun with this possibility. I had been telling friends that I would win and practicing what I would say. When I was told that I actually won I was struck speechless. Everything began to move slowly and I didn't hear much of what was said after that. I kept perseverating, "Are you serious?" "Are you serious?"

"Teaching chose me. It is a divine calling upon my life. It is not the work I thought I would be doing."

I was nominated by Mary Ann Bash, who is a Denver Public Schools' administrator. She has documented my work for 13 years and is my greatest fan and supporter. Mrs. Bash is impressed by quantifiable, proven academic results that teachers manifest from children. She also believes in a holistic approach to the education of young children. I am deeply grateful to her and profoundly grateful to Rich and Nancy Kinder of Houston, Texas, and individuals at the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) for creating this prestigious, generous, and history-making award.

EW: Who inspired you to be a teacher?

Alston: Teaching chose me. It is a divine calling upon my life. It is not the work I thought I would be doing. I had many extraordinary teachers in my life. My mother taught for 30 years. I was educated in segregated schools in Louisiana. My teachers were committed to my success. They demanded excellence. It was in those poor schools, lacking in resources, that I learned lessons of determination, dignity, and a belief in my own intellect and ability to succeed.

EW: What are your goals as an educator?

Alston: I have many! I am a writer. My goal is to write and publish. It is also my goal to have an honorary Ph.D. conferred upon me. I have a great sense of humor, as you can see, but I dwell in possibility. Stranger things have happened in my life, like me, a kindergarten teacher, winning the first ever Kinder Excellence in Teaching Award. I will do more public speaking. I will teach at a school on Goree Island in Senegal. I will visit Oprah Winfrey and Nelson Mandela's Institute in South Africa. I will get married again and honeymoon in Bora Bora. Notice, I put my goals in the affirmative. I expect miracles and witness them everyday. I've had a few sightings of miracles today already.

EW: What activities do you use to teach character education to your students?

Alston: More than activities per se, it is a way of being. Every day, all day, I expect and demand honor, dignity, respect, and honesty. I never let up. I demand that my students always say, "please" and "thank you." I teach them to make requests respectfully.

I also let them know that they have the power to decline requests from each other. I teach the children to respect themselves and others. I had a substitute teacher one day when I was not at school. My students did not behave well and she walked off the job. When I returned, many teachers and parents blamed the teacher. They said she didn't have classroom management skills. BOLOGNA! (Oscar Meyer has a way with it!) I disagreed. I had my students take responsibility for their inappropriate behavior and promise to never behave that way again. Plus, I insisted that they write apologies to themselves, to me, and their parents.

Literacy, reading, and writing alsoare incorporated into everything I teach. It is my belief that if the principal had pulled a homeless person off the street to teach in my place, that human being deserved respect and to be listened to and treated well as an adult by those little 5-year-old children. It had nothing to do with whether or not the teacher was good.

"Every day, all day, I expect and demand honor, dignity, respect, and honesty. I never let up."

She was a human being. She was an adult. Character education is walking your talk. I don't just teach character education and cross it off my lesson plan book. It is continuous. It is a way of life. It is transformation!

EW: What are some of the hardest things about teaching?

Alston: Distractions that eat away at my teaching time, like meetings and fund-raisers. Also, extreme behaviors and acting out by some children. It is so unfair to the children who choose to learn and self-regulate. Much of my teaching time is spent redirecting students who are misbehaving. It is also difficult when I try to work with parents on the behavior issues and they act powerless to do anything to support me in improving the behavior. Then, after a conference where I have explained the atrocious behavior, the parents say to the child, "Okay, honey, want to go get some ice cream?"

EW: What are the most rewarding things about teaching?

Alston: Beholding the miraculous! Observing poor, 5-year-old kindergarten children, who are mostly African-American, Hispanic, refugees, and English- language-learners from the projects come to my classroom in August. Many don't know how to hold a pencil, hold a book right side up, turn its pages, distinguish a number from a letter, or speak in a complete sentence.

Then, by January, I observe those same children read excerpts from the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., read and discuss William Shakespeare, write their own sonnets, and even make jokes about William really "Shakes beer," count by ten to 1,000, multiply, and independently serve you up a cup of tea on fine china from a silver tea service and wash the dishes without breaking them. These same children can project their speaking voices in plays before audiences, present their case before a real judge in a courtroom, and have "book signings" at a local bookstore of their own narratives that they have illustrated. This is exquisite delight!

EW: What resources and/or support do you think are critical to help urban students make significant gains in school?

Alston: Remember, I went to segregated schools in Louisiana with almost no resources. I didn't have a yearbook when I graduated from high school. We didn't have a football team. I had no locker. I had to lug my books, gym clothes, clarinet, purse and everything else around with me from class to class because we didn't have lockers. I knew a boy liked me when he offered to help me carry off that stuff to my next class.

So, it is not just the resources. Resources are good and necessary. It is teachers believing that students are brilliant and helping them to believe in themselves. Students must have a dream. No teacher can dream it for them. They must dream and hunger and thirst for knowledge, to be a good person and to make a difference on this planet. I see generous, wealthy people offering to pay for students' college expenses and the students are goofing off in school. What is wrong with this picture? I will tell you. These kind-hearted people are dreaming for children and families who have not caught hold of a dream for themselves.

We must make education real for students. They must be able to see themselves making a contribution to society and they must get a taste of how good it feels. Our students must know that education is not just to have a job and get the "bling bling." Even when some young people acquire wealth, they are lost and empty and continue in self-destructive, criminal, immoral, and violent lifestyles. I believe in a liberal arts education, if possible. Then students can explore the arts, sciences, and other fields and find what brings them joy and fulfillment in life. If I could give every student a gift it would be the passion that I have for making a difference in the world and to be a good person. When I teach my heart fills up with love, my soul deepens, my mind expands, my spirit dances, my hands create, my eyes behold beauty, and praise is what I do.

This e-interview with Linda Alson 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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