A Q&A with the Team BCPS Teacher of the Year finalists

CarneyMeet Adam Carney of New Town High School

Q: What inspired you to become a teacher?

A: I’ve always been really into superheroes because the world has a lot of injustice in it every day, and I admired how these people, super-powered or otherwise, would selflessly put themselves in harm’s way to oppose injustice. The closest thing in real life to being a superhero is being a teacher. I came from a one-stoplight small town where a lot of people did not reach for college, where people were content to stay around and enter the world of work or learn trades – but we had some amazing teachers in our high school who inspired us to reach for more and not be content with less regardless of where we came from in terms of family life or socioeconomics. I wanted to attempt to inspire others in this way; to help them reach further than they thought they were ever capable of reaching. It may sound cheesy, but I swear I wanted to get into teaching to change the world like the superheroes in comic books. Teachers are on the frontlines teaching students how to be citizens, teaching students how to be adults, teaching students how to navigate a crazy world. Real change for our world and our society begin in the schoolhouse so I consider this being on the frontlines, fighting injustice wherever I can find it.

Q: What do you think is so important about public education?

A: I’m an English teacher, and the image that always stays with me is Gatsby’s green light across the water – how he’s always reaching for it. Public education allows us to reach for whatever our dreams may be. It affords us the opportunity, regardless of our background, to change our situation. I feel like public education is the boat that can get our students across the water if they choose to get in and navigate through the fog and rough water to get to their own personal “green light.” Given my roots in rural New York, I really feel passionately about the fact that education is the gateway to change a situation, regardless of if it’s family dynamics or socioeconomic status or a cycle of abuse – a student’s education can be the great escape. I’ve seen it happen, and I believe that the more we improve public education for ALL students, the more opportunities we create for anyone to rise above their circumstances and do great things.

Q: What do you consider the role of a teacher to be?

A: Einstein once said, “I do not teach my students. I merely create the conditions in which they may learn.” That quote resonates with me deeply and has since I first stumbled upon it during my first year. A lot has been debated about whether teachers should be the “sage on the stage” or the “guide by the side”; however, I’ve never felt that they were mutually exclusive. A good teacher, I feel, needs to be both depending on the needs of his or her students and the content. We, as teachers, have a responsibility to our students to help them reach their own individual goals – whatever those may be. We should inspire them to reach great heights, but we shouldn’t try to force a new dream on them. We need to meet them along their own path and maximize their potential to make that dream a reality. In that vein, I think we have a responsibility to construct learning environments that will help our students learn the things they need to move down their own path – to create conditions for them to be successful and learn in relation to their goals. We can’t make our students’ choices for them. We can simply create opportunities for them to be successful and steer them in the direction that will help them be the most successful. In order to do those things, we have to find ways that will allow them to explore their own interests and their own goals in a way that relates to the content.

Q: What inspires you to keep moving forward every day?

A: Again, I know it sounds cheesy, but my students. They very much, throughout the course of the year, become like family to me, and I desperately try to find a connection with each of them. Helping them reach their goals is what gets me out of bed and gets me to work ready to start the process of moving them forward for the day. They have such diverse backgrounds and needs, and every day is something just a little bit different that keeps me moving to do the best I can for them. My co-workers also are an inspiration to me and help keep me moving. I love to stay on the edge of trends and to think outside-the-box, and I am thankful to work at New Town High, a place where thinking outside-the-box is actively encouraged and nurtured. I love collaborating with the amazing staff we have in our building, and it’s this collaboration that has allowed us to evolve as a school and make major strides in almost every area over the past eight years of my career. The people I work with at New Town are some of the most creative and innovative minds in education, and we are lucky enough to have them all in the same room on most occasions. It’s such an awesome place to be as an educator that I can’t wait to get to work to see what my colleagues will think of next to help us keep striving to reach the next level. Lastly, my wife and daughter are a huge inspiration to me every day. Seeing the way my daughter Gillian looks at the world with wide eyes and this huge sense of wonder makes me want to inspire that in the students I teach somehow. I wish I could bottle that look of wonder as she processes the things she sees every day and tries to make sense of it all. My wife inspires me because she is always my first sounding board for lesson ideas or anything to do with my students. She pushes me to be better every day, and I am a better person and a better teacher because of it.

Q: Tell us a story about a student you’ll always remember or a student-teacher relationship that changed the way you teach.

A: It’s really difficult to pick just one story, and I feel like a lot of students I’ve taught will be sending me messages if they see this about why “they” weren’t that story. There are a lot of students I will never forget.

One, though, stands out because of the journey he made and how that journey is still continuing to this day. I received a phone call one day from our AVID coordinator about an AVID tutor named Jason, and she asked if I could please come get him because he was being a disruption. I went up, and she talked to me for a moment and said, “He’s terrible. I was nervous about making him a tutor and all he does is flirt with the girls and sit around talking sports with the boys. He doesn’t teach them anything, his grades are terrible, and we really may need to re-evaluate if AVID is right for him at the end of the year.” So I took him with me that day and didn’t realize that the resulting 45 minutes speaking with Jason would set the course for a relationship that lasted the next 2 1/2 years of his high school career and on to today. I spoke with him at length about school, about AVID, about his family, and he seemed to open up a bit. By the time we were done, I asked the AVID coordinator if he could be a tutor for me during that period, as I’d just become the tech liaison and I could use some help. I told her by the end of the year, after he and I were done working together, she wouldn’t have to worry about re-evaluating his participation in AVID because we would get him on track. I spoke with Jason about life, about his father being in jail, about his circumstances and realized that, for the most part, Jason was me. We worked on his grades, which were terrible, but you could tell he was naturally gifted and intelligent and not working to his potential. Slowly he made strides as he finished Grade10 without even having to be brought up for the AVID review board because he had improved his attitude and his behavior significantly in his AVID elective class and throughout his classes. For Grade 11, we made him a tutor for me again, and I continued to build on my relationship with Jason. I saw him as a little brother, and I made sure that I looked over his shoulder. He also was now in my AP English Language class, so I had two periods where I could keep an eye on him.

Before my eyes I watched him absolutely metamorphose into a top-notch student; he was one of the brightest minds in my AP English class and dove deeply into the text, soaking up the knowledge. We had a long way to go on his homework, but, in school, his teachers were beginning to rave about his natural intelligence and his easy charisma. His grades, once C’s and D’s, were now improving to A’s and B’s – and in AP courses nonetheless. He began to make Honor Roll by 3rd quarter. His senior year he half begged me to be my assistant again, and we once again found a way to get it into his schedule. We worked on his college search together, and I watched the frustration well in his eyes as he realized that there are truly consequences for our choices. His Grade 9 and 10 grades were seriously hindering his ability to apply to colleges despite a well above-average SAT score and passing scores on AP exams. He made the decision to go to Morgan State for financial reasons, and the plan was to get his grades up so that he could either transfer somewhere that he wanted or so that he could get into an elite graduate program.

I am happy to say that I don’t need to check in on Jason as much any more to make sure he is doing his work. He has a 3.8 GPA at Morgan State, is president of the Marketing Society, and has his eyes set on Harvard’s prestigious MBA program. I couldn’t be prouder of Jason, and he will always be like a little brother or a son to me for the rest of his life. When I look at my relationship with Jason, it really gave me insight into the power just building a relationship with a student can have. He wasn’t particularly difficult or a major behavior problem, and he was naturally intelligent, but all it took was one person to care and look out for him and be a shoulder to vent on that made him reach the next level. That changed my teaching style, and now I strive to reach every student I can possibly reach. It’s a struggle with large classes, because I want to help all of them reach their full potential, like Jason is beginning to do.

CrossMeet Anne Cross of Gunpowder Elementary School

Q:  What inspired you to become an educator?

A; When I was just 18 years old, I decided that I wanted to live my life in service to others. Even at that young age, I knew that I didn’t just want a job. I didn’t want to make the size of my paycheck the motivational force in my life. I wanted to do something that matters; to make a difference. I knew that I wanted to experience fulfillment in my life, and felt that in serving others, I would experience fulfillment. I was inspired by the examples of selfless love and service that I witnessed in the lives of my family members and in the teachers to whom I was particularly close. Now, nearly 40 years later, I realize that being an educator has made it possible for me to live my life in service to others. I have worked with well over 1,000 children, in a variety of educational settings, in inner-city Washington, D.C., rural South Carolina, Appalachia, Baltimore City, and of course, Baltimore County. I am grateful and humble that I was able to serve each and every one.

Q:  What do you think is so important about public education?

A: In public education, we hold the future in the palms of our hands. The lessons we fail to teach may have dire consequences. I strongly agree that a major focus of public education needs to be providing an education that enables our students to become globally competitive. Our American way of life, and the freedoms that define who we are, depend upon it. In addition to enabling students to become globally competitive, I also believe we must teach our children to be globally conscious. Our children need to comprehend what it means to be members of the human race and stewards of our planet. Our children must embrace cultural diversity and build unity, if we are to resolve humanity’s greatest challenges.

Q:  What do you consider the role of a teacher to be?

A: According to Albert Einstein, “A society’s competitive advantage will come from not how well its schools teach the multiplication and periodic tables, but from how well they stimulate imagination and creativity.” As a teacher, it is my role to stimulate imagination and creativity. I must empower my students to look beyond their perceived limitations and achieve more than even they believed possible. I must encourage my students to be courageous risk-takers who understand that sometimes, in making the effort, we fail. We just need to get back up and try again. My students can use the Web to answer any question or learn a new concept. A machine cannot inspire, encourage, or challenge a child. That is my role.

Q:  What inspires you to keep moving forward every day?

A: If I am not moving forward, then I am stagnant. Honestly, at times it would be easy to give up or become complacent; however, as I tell my students all the time, “Challenge is a good thing. Without challenge, life is boring. What is worse than that?” As an individual with epilepsy, I have had to learn to face challenges head on and never look backward. In addition, I strongly believe that my profession is much more than a job or career path; it is a vocation, a calling. As a result, I am completely committed to my students. I tell my students that in all things they need to dig deep, try their hardest, and be the best that they can be. How can I expect less from myself?

Q:  Tell us a story about a student you’ll always remember or a teacher-student relationship that changed the way you teach.

A: For morning work, my fifth graders were writing in their journals. The children could share their journals with me, or they could keep them private, like a diary. It didn’t matter as long as they were writing and enjoying it. I looked up from my plan book one day and realized that one of my students was standing next to my desk. She was a tiny little thing, and very, very quiet. She was holding her marble copybook out to me, looking at me intently with huge dark eyes. “Do you want me to read your journal?”  She said nothing, but nodded vigorously.

I noticed that the journal entry was pages long, and I really wasn’t prepared for what she had written. “I don’t want to go back to India and get married this summer. I am still a little girl. I am an American girl now. American girls get to go college and have careers. American girls get to grow up, fall in love, and then get married. I want to go to college. I want to grow up. I want to fall in love and get married.”  She went on and on like this for four pages.

I realized that by sharing her journal with me, she was crying out in desperation. She had come to me to be her voice, her advocate. I didn’t know how, but I knew I had to help her.

The principal, school counselor, and I met with her father. We shared her feelings with him. He seemed to understand and even indicated that he would not make her go back to India to get married. In spite of this, I wasn’t completely confident that he would respect his daughter’s wishes. For that reason, I spent years trying to keep tabs on her. Whenever I would run into a middle school student, and later, high school students, I would always ask if she was still in their classes. “Oh yes, Mrs. Cross, she is still in our class.” It has been more than 20 years now. I lost track of her, and I thought that was the end.

Last year, the secretary called down to my room and asked if a former student could stop in for a second. I always love when they stop by! A beautiful, petite young woman came to my door. “Mrs. Cross, I am sure you don’t remember me…”  Oh yes, I did remember her! She said that she had to stop in and see me. “Mrs. Cross, you are the first person who believed in me. You saw something inside of me, and you pushed me to be more. You told me that I could be anything I want to be. Mrs. Cross, I went to college, and medical school, and now I am a doctor. Thank you, Mrs. Cross. I have never forgotten you.”

I never forgot her either.

CulbertsonMeet Kimberly Culbertson of Dulaney High School

Q: What inspired you to become an educator?

A: I was inspired to become a teacher by my grandfather whose education was dramatically halted during Grade 3 due to the effects of World War II. After immigrating from the Netherlands to the United States, my grandfather worked tirelessly to earn enough income to provide for his children throughout their public education. Because of his hard work, my mother was able to complete high school and build a career that assured that I could do the same. When I became the first in my family to have the opportunity to go to college, I knew I had to do something that would honor my family’s sacrifices. Thus, I became a teacher to help give children in my community the educational opportunities that my grandfather did not have.

Q: What do you think is so important about public education?

A: Equitable public education is important because it provides all students with opportunities for them to become anything they want, regardless of circumstance or status. As public educators, it is our responsibility to utilize effective and innovative teaching strategies so that students are empowered to reach their potential and pursue their dreams.

Q: What do you consider the role of a teacher to be?

A: B.F. Skinner once said, “Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.” To me, a teacher’s role is not to teach “Googleable facts” but to facilitate the sustainable development of critical 21st century skills such as critical thinking, logical reasoning, innovation, creativity, and collaboration through the core content. Teachers therefore are pivotal leaders in shaping the future of our society by fostering skills that enable students to become globally competitive and productive citizens.

Q: What inspires you to keep moving forward each day?

A: The opportunity to help students realize their fullest potential keeps me moving forward each day. Witnessing my students’ continuous growth and successes as they solve challenging, real-world problems encourages me to constantly seek out innovative teaching strategies to ensure that learning is rigorous, relevant, and engaging every day. I’m proud of my students, and I’m excited to see what problems they will continue to solve in their careers ahead.

Q: Tell us a story about a student you’ll always remember or a student-teacher relationship that changed the way you teach.

A: During my first year of teaching I had a student who emphatically opposed his coursework on a daily basis. Although he did successfully complete my course, I never felt like I was able to reach this student in a positive way. However, a year after he graduated, I was called to the front office on request of a “visitor.” Lo and behold, it was this student who had returned to tell me “thank you,” and that he credited his success in college to the lessons he learned in my classroom. This made me realize that we often do not know the impact we have as teachers, and that it is always important to be patient and never give up on our students.

KrauseMeet Julie Krause of Hawthorne Elementary School

Q:  What inspired you to become an educator?

 A: My mother is the most amazing teacher I have ever known. She has inspired me to be the person and teacher who I am today. My mother teaches special education, and I grew up listening to her stories about her experiences as a teacher. I learned at a young age that in order to be a good teacher you must be dedicated, compassionate, collaborative, and open to change. I have always had the support of my family to reach for my dreams, and once I landed in the world of teaching and learning, I never looked back.

Q: What do you think is so important about public education?

A: Public education is so important because it provides opportunity for all children and lays the foundation where children begin their paths as lifelong learners. Every individual is given the opportunity to learn and, along with effort and encouragement, they can establish their place in the world. It is the gateway to opportunity where teachers create authentic opportunities that allow students to be engaged in valuable learning experiences. Students gain the skills they need to become deep thinkers, problem solvers, independent learners, and productive citizens of the world.

Q: What do you consider the role of a teacher to be?

A: The role of the teacher is to help shape the culture of a school, improve student learning, and influence practice among colleagues. I believe that teachers lead by example, and they must provide a safe, secure, and nurturing learning environment. The most important role is to get to know each student as an individual in order to understand his or her unique needs, learning styles, social and cultural backgrounds, interests, and abilities. Teachers counsel students and are prepared to intervene at any time to make sure learning occurs for every student. Our role is to inspire a love of learning by designing appropriate educational experiences and activities for all students. Teachers are educational guides, facilitators, and co-learners. The role of a teacher is to work within the school, classroom, and school community to establish positive relationships in order to support all students. A teacher is reflective. Students need to realize that everyone makes mistakes, but it is how you use lessons to improve yourself that makes the difference.

Q: What inspires you to keep moving forward each day?

A: I am inspired by my students every day. They come bursting through the door with diverse backgrounds and life experiences. I know that they count on me to encourage the excitement and help them realize their potential. Although each day brings new challenges, I am inspired by the thought of making a difference in children’s lives. I think an outstanding teacher puts forth his/her best effort every day, finds a silver lining behind every cloud and is constantly focused on the positive. I owe it to my students to be an outstanding teacher, and I will do whatever it takes to help them reach their goals.

Q: Tell us a story about a student you’ll always remember or a student-teacher relationship that changed the way you teach.

A: I will never forget the day that a new student walked into my classroom in the middle of November. He said, “I hate school, and I hate to read.”

I began to think about why he had that impression of school, and I began the quest of getting to know him and how to facilitate a major change within him by building a strong relationship. He remained in my class for only one month before his family moved again. In that short time, he taught me the importance of supporting students emotionally as well as academically in order to foster growth and change. After seeking guidance from many valuable resources and colleagues, as well as implementing many supports, I was able to see a change in his overall demeanor very quickly. He became available for learning when he felt safe and accepted. The first time I observed him smiling while reading a book, I knew that he started to enjoy learning and was open to its benefits. He taught me that it is my responsibility to ensure that all students gain the tools needed to engage in learning and meet with success no matter what challenges are presented.

 

WebsterMeet Michelle Webster of Woodholme Elementary

Q: What inspired you to become an educator?

A: From the time my kindergarten teacher, Miss Bacey, visited me at home during the summer before I entered kindergarten and told me all the wonderful things I would learn in school, I knew I wanted to grow up to be a teacher. It was not until I was in one of my education classes in college that I realized that she visited everyone for a home visit. I just always thought I was that special to her. I understood her visit was part of her job, and I decided that I wanted to be a “Miss. Bacey” for children. I wanted to create a culture for children where they would love learning and be excited about school.  As a graduate of Baltimore County Public Schools myself, I was fortunate to be inspired by many outstanding teachers throughout my childhood helping to solidify my desire to become a teacher.

Q: What do you think is so important about public education?

A: Public education is not a one size fits all type of learning opportunity. Lessons are developed in order to reach every child. Every child’s learning style, needs, and abilities are considered and valued. Though instruction may be individualized, a community is created within the school, and students are taught to embrace the differences in others, learn to work collaboratively and cooperatively, and build friendships with who those they may not have otherwise had the opportunity to encounter. In public schools, we accept others for who they are and foster the potential for who they are yet to become.

Q: What do you consider the role of a teacher to be?

A:  A teacher’s role is to advocate for student success and be a facilitator of student learning. A teacher should be the person who guides students in their success for lifelong learning. In all of our student’s lives, they need a person in their corner cheering for them, mentoring them, believing in them, caring for them, and saying, “Yes, you can!”  I hope, for every child, that person is also a teacher.

Q: What inspires you to keep moving forward each day?

A: As a reading specialist in the same school for past nine years, I have been so fortunate to see students grow from young kindergartners to independent fifth graders. In my position, I work primarily with intermediate students who are struggling with a reading or writing skill. Some also may have negative feelings about reading or writing in general.    When a student I am working with achieves success or makes improvement in any way and feels good about it, it keeps me coming back. Seeing the strides that students make in their learning and knowing that I facilitated that change moves me forward ready to build upon that and continue down the path of celebrating each goal students achieve. I not only want to be there to reinforce their learning, but to build them up if they falter and encourage them each step of the way. I come back each day so that my students know they can count on me and that we share the responsibility for their learning endeavors.

Q: Tell us a story about a student you’ll always remember or a student-teacher relationship that changed the way you teach.

A: Ben was a student my Grade 1 class I will always remember; I’m so very thankful I met him early in my teaching career. One day I picked my class up from physical education, and I noticed that Ben was really sad. Ben and I talked on the way back to class during which time he told me that he could not participate that day because he didn’t wear tennis shoes.

I quickly shook my head and said, “Well you have to remember to wear your tennis shoes for phys ed.”

In a matter of fact kind of way, Ben looked at me, and I can still see his face today, and stated, “I don’t have tennis shoes.”

BOOM! It hit me! I need to know my students. I talked to Ben some more at recess and got to know him better that day. I found out his likes and dislikes and talked about what he does when he’s not in school. So moved by our discourse, that night I went out and bought him Spiderman tennis shoes. I didn’t give them to Ben but to the social worker in my school who gave them to Ben. I had to laugh because at the end of the next day there was a picture of a smiling Spiderman on my desk with a note that simply said, “I know!”

Ben taught me a valuable lesson about getting to know my students. I spent time that year getting to know each of the students in my class as individuals. I had expected Ben to come to school ready to learn, yet he didn’t even have his basic needs met. He didn’t have tennis shoes, or more important, a bed to sleep in at night! I realized that year that building relationships was the most important thing I had to do with my students in order to help them learn. I think Ben taught me as much, if not more, about the importance of my job in the life of my students as I taught him about academics.

 

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