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An Inspiring Teacher
Draws Inspiration
From Students

Finding ways to put students at the center of their own learning and helping them find their passions are just some of the reasons Sarah Brown Wessling was named the 2010 National Teacher of the Year. Included: How the National Teacher of the Year approaches learning.

For National Teacher of the Year Sarah Brown Wessling, student-centered learning is the best way to teach now and going forward. The grade 10-12 English teacher at Johnston High School in Johnston, Iowa, uses surveys, songs, film storyboards, public service announcements, Facebook pages, and a yearly grant project involving the entire town to engage her students in learning. For one of Wesslings assignments, students create non-profit organizations for at-risk groups in the community and prepare grant proposals for which members of the community approve (imaginary) funding. She has boosted the confidence and performance of students at both ends of the academic spectrum.

The National Teacher of the Year Program is a project of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) with program partners the University of Phoenix Foundation and People To People Ambassadors Programs. The ING Foundation presents and supports the Teacher of the Year program and this year Target came on board as a lead sponsor.

Wessling talked with Education World about her passions for students and teaching and the direction in which she thinks schools need to turn.

Sarah Brown Wessling

Education World: Who or what inspired you to become a teacher?

Sarah Brown Wessling: Im not so sure that it was inspiration as much as destination; in other words, I was meant to be a teacher. According to my mom, as a young child, I often created these neighborhood schools where I would get all the kids on our block together so we could learn. I have rogue memories of this myself, and when they come into focus, I recognize a sense of purpose and promise that I now carry with me each day in the classroom.

Along with my mother, who is a fourth-grade teacher, many other teachers were incredible influences. There was an elementary teacher who taught me how to capitalize on my passions; a college professor who taught me about the power of engaged response; a mentor outside the profession who taught me that the language of our stories is transformative. Inspiration never comes from one place, but from the chorus of my experiences.

EW: What are some of your strategies for getting students engaged in literature?

It is from my unabashed authenticity that I find ways to engage students.

Wessling: Working with teenagers is perhaps the greatest truth serum to be found. You cant hide from them and you cant fool them. They demand authenticity in the most visceral way. It is from my unabashed authenticity that I find ways to engage students. Im interested in learning about them and not just in judging or assessing them. I want to know what their passions are, what their questions are, what their dreams are. When I can develop that kind of trust and rapport with them, I can begin to engage them in our work.

I work alongside them to explore the essential questions that guide our thematic units. I cant wait to introduce them to characters in literature and rediscover those literary figures through their experiences. I model what it means to construct your own meaning, and then support them as they learn to take intellectual risks. In short, I am transparent about my passion and invite them to join the club.

EW: What themes or issues do you plan to stress during your term as Teacher of the Year?

Wessling: We need to not only construct learner-centered classrooms where disciplines collapse, where ideas flourish, where learning becomes relevant to students; we also need to be prepared to re-envision what a learner-centered classroom can look like in the 21st century. We must create the kinds of worthy learning experiences that drive students to become critical thinkers, problem-solvers, and innovators. We must create environments where the consumers of our curriculums become the designers of their own learning.

We must create the kinds of worthy learning experiences that drive students to become critical thinkers, problem-solvers, and innovators.

EW: What is the hardest aspect of teaching these days?

Wessling: Reading our own compasses. There is a euphoria that comes with learning. For many teachers, it is what draws them into the classroom. But it doesnt take long for our teaching days to become cluttered with the things that surround learning: copy machines, tardy policies, cell phones, or grade programs. Its easy to lose track of whats most important when everything seems to carry the same weight of significance. Each teacher in each classroom could offer a different response about what is most challenging in the profession; and in all likelihood, it could change from day to day. But we must resist being distracted from creating the kinds of authentic experiences that both challenge and resonate with learners.

EW: What makes a good day for you?

Wessling: The best days are when students ask the best questions. I revel in cognitive dissonance and I count on my students to propel me to contemplation as much as I propel them. When I have to run to my desk in the back of the room to write down a question on a sticky note, or when I jot down an insight on a book jacket, I know were having a good day.

This e-interview with Sarah Brown Wessling is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


Language Arts
Teaching Language Arts

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2010 Education World

Published 09/14/2010