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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Foundation Recognizes Teaching Excellence

Ken Ellis

Former Executive Producer, video , Edutopia

The evening was filled with tales of despair, struggle and ultimate success. The Carlston Family Foundation was recognizing six outstanding California teachers, nominated by their former students who graduated from high schools in high poverty/high risk environments and went on to succeed at prestigious universities. An appreciative audience of family members, friends, students and colleagues were alternately roaring with laughter and fighting back tears, as they listened to the teachers describe their journeys from cluelessness to mastery in the classroom.

Most of the stories had a common arc. "I cried every day of my student teaching. I thought, why spend all this time and money to become a teacher? It's awful!" said Vickie Kurtz with a smile. "I don't know exactly what happened, but it's been 28 years now" since she began teaching English, British Literature, Composition and Rhetoric at Hoopa Valley High School on an Indian reservation near the Oregon border. Stanford student Natalie Carpenter nominated Kurtz for the award. "Ms. Kurtz was the only teacher who showed any interest in my well being. She believed in me, even when I thought I was a failure. My life was falling apart around me, but she never allowed me to use my problems as an excuse for not doing my best."

One of San Diego's "Teachers of the Year," Jonathan Winn, was "way overwhelmed" in his first school assignment. "I quit after two years, cleaned out my retirement account, and I went to Thailand and taught English over there and thought I was never coming back." But he returned to San Diego and found a home at Crawford High School's math department. Teaming with veteran teachers Carl Munn and Becky Breedlove, Winn established one of the most successful calculus programs in the country. In a school where one in ten students is a native English speaker, and 95 percent receive free or reduced lunch, the AP Calculus program has grown from 15 students to 150 in three years and boosts the highest pass rate in the district on the AP exam.

Indeed, Crawford was a failing comprehensive school until 2005, when several small schools, including the School of Community Health and Medical Practices (CHAMPS) where Winn teaches, were established. Since then, dropout rates have decreased seven percent, graduation rates have increased nine percent, and AP course enrollments have increased 19 percent.

Keys to Success

In addition to working in schools with challenges, the winning teachers have many things in common. Tim Allen, Director of the Carlston Family Foundation, interviewed hundreds of students who listed the qualities that make their favorite teacher stand out from the rest of the faculty. Here are nine of the key qualities/strategies that outstanding teachers share.

  1. They show a deep passion for teaching; they love their subject matter and know it thoroughly.
  2. They hold high expectations that are fair, reasonable, consistent and clear.
  3. They are scholarly and love learning themselves.
  4. They hold all students equally accountable and responsible for learning and for their behavior.
  5. They plan every minute of class time; there is never a wasted moment.
  6. They will never leave students behind and will allow other students to help those who have difficulty.
  7. They make the subject matter relevant to the lives of students and their immediate experience.
  8. They have respect for students, are insightful about them on a day-to-day basis, and are non-judgmental.
  9. They are authentic, real and appropriately autobiographical.
The Crawford Calculus Crew: Becky Breedlove, Jonathan Winn, Carl Munn (Credit: Paula Rieck)


Nominate an Outstanding Teacher

The Carlston Family Foundation is looking to identify the next class of heroic teachers. Each honoree receives a $15,000 cash award, and his or her high school receives a cash award of $5,000. You can find more information about how to nominate an outstanding teacher on the Foundation's Nominate page.

Editor's Note: The Carlston Awards honor individual teachers for their achievements, and confer prestige on the schools and programs the teachers represent. But even the most successful programs have come under attack by administrators and school boards looking to cut costs.

The small school model is more expensive than the comprehensive model -- about $40 per student, per year. In the end, the district decided to close down the small schools at Crawford and return it to a comprehensive high school. In the process, Winn was issued layoff notice. Even though the CHAMPs Mathematics Program has now been terminated on the Crawford campus, Winn is hoping to teach there for one more year.

Ken Ellis

Former Executive Producer, video , Edutopia
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