Celebrate the Profession
The last few years have been hard on educators. Sometimes the challenges teachers face on a daily basis are so great that it’s hard to remember the rewards of the profession or the reason why they chose to become public school educators. And for that reason, ISTA wants to recognize the success stories that are seldom told. As the new school year begins, I will share with you some of the best we have in our schools, cafeterias, facilities, playgrounds and on school buses. I hope you’ll follow these stories and see what happens every day in Indiana’s public schools.
—Kathleen Berry Graham
ISTA Assistant Editor
Celebrate the Profession of the Month
Southport Elementary Teacher Honored with Milken Educator Award
Indiana State Teachers Association
15th Year as ISTA Member
Whether she is dedicating her time as a mentor or engaging a class jam-packed with fifth graders, Kelly Wilber strives to make a positive impact at Southport Elementary. In honor of these efforts, she recently accepted a Milken Educator Award.
“We have a tremendous amount of talent in our building, so it was incredible to be singled out and recognized among such a great group of educators,” Wilber said. “When Mr. Stark announced me as the recipient, I was surprised and full of emotion.”
This award provides not only public recognition, but an unrestricted $25,000 financial reward for outstanding K-12 educators, per what they have attained and vow to achieve in the future. All recipients are selected confidentially by a blue-ribbon panel appointed by the Department of Education during their early to mid-career. With this, they are encouraged to join the Milken Educator Network, where they can be mentored by approximately 2,600 distinguished leaders and participate in professional development opportunities nationwide.
She says her colleagues and leadership team motivate her the most. They constantly inspire her to try new teaching techniques that will positively impact student achievement. She wants to instill the idea and importance of being a life-long learner.
“My goal for each lesson is to make the learning meaningful, relevant and engaging for everyone,” Wilber said. “I try to incorporate student interests and elicit a variety of thinking with my activities and materials. I want my curriculum to be challenging and relevant, so that my students understand the purpose of each learning objective and how it connects to the real world.”
Despite being motivated by her peers, Wilber says her first inspiration was her brother David who has Down Syndrome. Though they were seven years apart, she says they often learned together as children. She realized at an early age that everyone has the ability to learn, but says the process may look different.
“My brother taught me the importance of hard work and perseverance,” Wilber said. “I wanted to become a teacher in order to work with other kids like David who face learning challenges.”
She feels it is important to empower students by having them set their own learning goals and evaluate their progress. “It is exciting to watch my students grow as learners,” she said. “Their accomplishments make me want to continually improve my teaching strategies.” In order to do that, she works to help her students overcome challenges that might stifle their educational or personal development. “I can’t wait to see the leaders that they will someday become.”
She has been a fifth grade teacher for 10 years and an educator for 15 years. Yet, her talents go beyond the classroom. While serving as a TAP mentor since 2011, Wilber has coached colleagues at every grade level. On the district level, she previously committed her time to the High Ability team, volunteered for Title I Science Night, organized community fundraisers and even helped plan their summer school program.
Wilber has also been a member of ISTA since the beginning of her teaching career. She says ISTA provides a positive network of support and resources to help keep teachers informed on important topics.
“Our school motto is ‘Whatever It Takes’, and our teachers do just that,” Wilber boasts. “Our teachers live up to that motto each day in order to have our students achieve success.”
Check out “Mrs. Wilber’s Fabulous 5th Grade Class”: http://websites.msdpt.k12.in.us/kwilber/ or Southport Elementary School at http://websites.msdpt.k12.in.us/se/.
For info about Milken Educator Awards visit: http://www.milkeneducatorawards.org/.
Teaches Band and Music Technology at Shelbyville Middle School
Shelbyville Central Teachers Association
Fourth Year as ISTA Member
To contact Horton by email: email@example.com.
Check out Shelbyville Middle School here: http://sms.shelbycs.org/ or
its band website at: sms.shelbyvillebands.com.
For info about McDonald’s Make Activities Count program: http://www.mcindiana.com/7331/66498/MAC-Grants/.
Twenty-eight seventh graders clattered their way into the band room at Shelbyville Middle School and promptly settled in. The cases popped open. The instruments appeared. And before long Patrick Horton’s room pulsated with a slow, deep, baritone warm-up that vibrated the desktops.
“They do it every day,” said Horton after they upped the tempo and kept time tapping scuffed boots and joggers with neon-colored laces to the increase. “It gets class going plus it warms up their breath and their instruments.”
Horton teaches band and music technology to 200 sixth, seventh and eighth graders who play flutes, clarinets, saxophones, oboes, trumpets, bassoons, French horns, trombones, baritones, tubas and percussion instruments. “I can make sounds on all of those instruments,” Horton said, “but I started by playing trombone in sixth grade.” He still owns that piece of brass. It sits right up front in his classroom. He reluctantly pulled it out for a few notes when I asked.
Horton, who serves as a co-building rep at Shelbyville Middle School, credits his high school band director, Dr. Jeff Keller, with steering him to study music and be a teacher. “Dr. Keller instilled a strong work ethic in me and always taught me to be better,” Horton recalled. “I would like to think that I do that for my students and I know that through professional development I do that for myself.”
Between music theory questions and rehearsal for the holiday concert this month, Horton explained that in October he applied for a Make Activities Count Grant sponsored by McDonald’s of Central Indiana. Just weeks later McDonald’s reps and his principal presented him with one of those oversized checks—McDonald’s Golden Arches logo in the upper left-hand corner. Horton laughed as he said, “As soon as my students saw the check they asked me if they could spend the $470 on Chicken McNuggets.”
The McDonald’s program provides funding to teachers for interesting and educational projects. This year 40 middle school teachers in 33 Indiana counties will receive similar grants.
Horton used his cash to purchase a new iPad with the SmartMusic app that not only helps his students read music but provides immediate feedback. During my visit, four eagerly engaged students hovered around the iPad in an adjacent annex, their instruments at the ready.
What’s Horton’s favorite music to play? “Right now I am working on learning some jazz standards on the guitar.” And what does he listen to on the radio? “Well, I hear a lot of music all day long so I listen to NPR on the radio.” And his favorite band? After a thoughtful, long-fermata pause, he admitted, “Whoever is playing in my classroom.”
Teaches Drama at Central Middle International School
Kokomo Teachers Association
First Year ISTA Member
To contact Elmore by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Check out Central Middle International School here:
“I feel very lucky to be here,” said Teresa Elmore while we stood on a false floor floating 30 or more feet above the stage of Central Middle School’s theatre. And she really meant it. She meant it about the space where she was standing under dust-covered booms holding stage lights and where steps away construction crews teetered on ladders repairing plaster to original archways or scurried down narrow temporary steps to land in the wings of the 100-year-old hall.
Elmore, the drama teacher at Central Middle who is in her first year of teaching, will get to use the 700-seat space for classes and for a production this year in the stately, red-brick school that served as Kokomo High School years ago. But more important, Elmore feels lucky to be teaching theatre to sixth, seventh and eighth graders in a well-worn, but revitalized, urban area.
Two years ago survey results showed that Howard County parents and business leaders wanted more arts in their schools. Central Middle took up the slack. Its International Baccalaureate and Integrated Arts programs now offer a framework of academic challenges not found in most middle schools. And now the good part. Central, with its impressive architecture and ceilings draped with colorful international flags like a pirate schooner, needed a drama teacher.
Elmore, who rapid-fire talks and gestures even while seated, told me that she graduated Ball State’s ed program and 18 days later jumped at the chance to take the Kokomo position. “It’s so neat what we are doing here for these kids in the arts. I cannot imagine having this opportunity at this age. Most middle schools don’t even dream of having a drama class—most high schools don’t.”
The offerings are popular. Central had to limit spots for its strings and classical orchestra class because it had only 30 pianos. And where do you see a middle school with a ballet studio?
She anticipates that the numbers for drama will go up after students hear about the fun. “We get to pretend play in my class and these kids are still at the age where they will do it,” said the slight-of-build, 5-foot-2-inch pixie who easily blended in with her charges while they practiced speeches for a Veterans Day production.
Elmore doesn’t see herself slowing down anytime soon. As she bopped between pairs of students in sixth-period she told me she’s getting married soon, dreams of playing the comedic roll of Miss Hannigan as portrayed by Carol Burnett plus wants to be more active in Association work. It’s a good thing she claims, “I have secret, super-power, high energy.” She does.
Principal Holly Herrera remembers her first meeting with Elmore at a job fair as, well, high-spirted. “Teresa bounced up to me with outstretched jazz hands and belted out, ‘DRAMA!’”
Elmore’s spirit level hasn’t decreased and Herrera says Central is looking for funding to get productions rolling and to let Elmore’s students take the stage once construction is completed this month. And like Elmore, who says she is lucky to be at Central, it was clear that her students and principal alike feel lucky to have Elmore in Kokomo.
Teaches Science at Sarah Scott Middle School in Terre Haute
Vigo County Teachers Association
ISTA member 5 years
To contact Jordan by email:
Check out EcoTeach here: http://ecoteach.com/
Read Jordan’s blog about her Amazon adventure here: http://thinkingwithoutboundaries.wordpress.com
More about Jordan’s grant: http://www.neafoundation.org/pages/learning-leadership-grants/
“Finding answers to weird questions is what science is all about,” Melissa Jordan said while she tidied up her laboratory classroom at Sarah Scott Middle School in Terre Haute. “And it isn’t always about getting immediate answers. That part is tough for my seventh-graders. They don’t want to have to work for it.”
Jordan told me she tackles that challenge by trying to keep things weird for her students. How weird? As soon as I stepped into her room I noticed a large tank that was crawling with more than 200 Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches. And these cockroaches are not the kind that scurry across the floor at night. These big, hearty, two-inch long “Hissers” slowly creep through chunks of driftwood and up tree stump remains. “Finding weird is the best way to engage them. It keeps them asking questions.”
Jordan herself is a perfect specimen of that process. Well, the questions part at least.
In 2011 she was on her own quest for deeper professional development. While wheeling around on the internet she learned of a travel experience developed for and by educators that was an intense summer study program along the Amazon River. Perfect for a science teacher who as a kid loved to read National Geographic and penned letters to Greenpeace. She really wanted to go but it was expensive. Couldn’t swing it. Yet it lingered on her wish list.
In 2012 she decided she had to do it and applied for several grants to help with the cost. Nothing happened. “The program cost $2300, the flight was $1200,” Jordan said. “Plus a lot of equipment is needed to complete the program—hiking boots, binoculars, clothing, bug spray, a field camera to capture the animals in the rainforest.” Still not a single grant came through. “I was heartbroken.”
Ironically Jordan found herself much like her students—without an immediate answer. But she kept working, kept asking. She taught a summer session at a local college for extra cash and paid the deposit for the EcoTeach program. Her husband knew she had to do it. Together they decided to use tax refund money to cover the remainder of the cost.
“Best decision personally and professionally that I ever made in my life,” she now says. How great? She repeated the journey the next summer.
But in 2013 she was lucky. She applied for and received an NEA Learning and Leadership Grant from the NEA Foundation. The grants fund individual participation in high-quality professional development. “I couldn’t believe it,” said a still-thrilled Jordan. “I was going back.”
So for the second summer in a row Jordan fell in love with the Amazon. Not only was she working side by side with scientists, researchers and teaching colleagues but she again was asking questions about the jungle, the rainforest and a host of animals like squirrel monkeys, tropical macaws and frogs no larger than your thumbnail.
What was the best part? She told me that the experience helps with some of those extras she likes to offer her ranks—like an after-school science club or chatting over lunch with five students in her classroom every Friday. And, yes, she provides the sub sandwiches.
More important, Jordan said her travels, “Help me to make my kids love science and to love the process. I hope I teach them to keep asking questions. And, yes, part of it is teaching them that finding the answers might not come as easy as they might like. But that carries over into life,” she says with a swelling of emotion. “I’m teaching science but it’s so much more than that.” Same for Jordan.
Photo: A crowning moment for Farmer (above), at the top of the Newfound Gap in the Great Smoky Mountains, with his daughter, Sadie and fellow rider, Caleb Langley. Photo submitted by Farmer.
Teaches Physics, Chemistry and AP Biology at Bloomington High School North
Monroe County Education Association
ISTA Member 26 years
To contact Farmer
To find out more about deCycles Indiana, go to: http://decyclesindiana.org.
Paul Farmer, like so many Indiana teachers, would go the extra mile for his students. Yet this summer Farmer went 1,700 extra miles. He rode a bike from Key West, Florida—yes, the southernmost tip of the continental United States—to Bloomington. And he did it for students, with students and with his 16-year-old daughter.
Farmer’s ride was part of a youth leadership program called deCycles Indiana that started in Bloomington in 1968. Sixty riders, including teens, college students and young adults, took off in 90-plus degree heat some days for a challenging 23-day, cross-country cycling adventure. “The route changes every year and the cyclists share meals and spend nights in area schools, community centers and churches along the journey,” he said. I found it unbelievable that riding experience was not required.
Yet Farmer himself spent months training for the journey that pairs one adult and one college-age, experienced rider with each group of six middle school- or high school-age students. Forty of the student riders were from the Bloomington area but bikers from Ohio, Kentucky, Arizona, Michigan and Illinois rounded out the group.
Farmer, who teaches physics, chemistry and AP biology, displays a dedication and passion for teaching and the bike expedition that equals his passion for unionism. This year he takes on the role as MCEA local president after serving as vice for 10 years. He told me that the trip was inspiring on a very personal level and he discovered things about himself, his fellow riders and even about the people he met in churches or towns along the way. His wife, Myra, a teacher at Tri North Middle School in Bloomington was one of the 20 volunteer backers and drove one of the support vehicles. She’s also an active MCEA member.
“It was a learning experience for all of us—me, my wife and my daughter,” he said. More than anything Farmer told me that the ride reinforced the same building blocks that he uses in his classroom. “So many times I hear my students say, ‘I can’t do this.’” Same from riders. “This trip was much like what I do when I teach. When you look at the big obstacle it’s hard, but when you break it down into little steps, my students—like the riders—find that they can take it step by step and succeed. And like union matters, they learn that others are there to help. Nobody does it alone whether it be in school, in the classroom or on a bike. I want to be there to help kids achieve their distant dreams and to be successful. I wanted those riders to be every bit as successful as I want my students to be and it’s a little gift to me to be able to help.”
When I asked Farmer if he would ride again he had a lengthy pause which made me think not. But he finally said, “If my daughter wants to do it again, I will.”
At the end of the day when we stepped out of his laboratory into the hall, the vibe ramped up as a flood of high schoolers streamed by. I asked him how many students were at Bloomington North. “About 1700,” he said. I couldn’t believe the irony—1700 students, 1700 miles. Then I asked him if he rode a mile for every one of those students. He grinned and said, “Well, I never thought about it that way, but maybe I did.”
Teaches Fourth Grade at Suncrest Elementary
Frankfort Education Association
ISTA Member 5 years
To contact Herring
Frankfort has that comfortable Indiana small-town feeling. A movie-set limestone courthouse is surrounded by purple and white petunia baskets that hang from iron lampposts where the locals park on the square without a parking meter in sight.
That cozy, down-to-earth feeling spreads just west of downtown to Suncrest Elementary where I met Marcie Herring who was busy getting her fourth grade classroom up and running for an August 14 start date. Herring, however, who enthusiastically embraces the region where she grew up, is not an idle homespun kind of girl. She’s a burst of energy and a vocal advocate for teachers and her professional organization.
Her short summer schedule is an example of her get-it-done attitude. She got married in late June; honeymooned in Gatlinburg; helped with a church community project as soon as she returned; had one day to catch up on laundry and then dashed away to the Denver NEA RA.
She remembered to pack enthusiasm when she took off for Colorado. “If someone would have told me that I could do what I did in Denver, I would never believe it,” Herring said about standing before the entire delegation to push for more professionalization for educators. “I look back now and just shake my head. It’s a blur.” Well, not really, because she described to me in perfect detail what happened.
Herring learned of New Business Item 91 while in an Indiana caucus. The item would ensure that teachers are professionally trained in Title 1 classrooms. “I didn’t want to think that I went to school for four years to be trained to be a classroom teacher and then find out that people with a degree in something else could pass a test and teach,” Herring said. “I felt a need to speak up about professionalism for all classrooms.”
She took action. With little time to prepare and after only one year of teaching under her belt, she stepped up. “I was really nervous. It’s a large arena, it’s kind of dark and I had to leave to catch a plane. But before I knew it I was standing before the mic and the lights were on me. I don’t think I was breathing but I managed to get started and said, ‘Hi Dennis.’” (to Dennis Van Roekel, president of NEA.) She then told the 7,000 delegates why it’s important for educators to be professionals. The Indiana delegation cheered. The business item was adopted. She dashed off to catch that plane.
Her vigor hasn’t slowed. Back home she told me that she’s taken on the role of vice president of her local association. And she’s powerful in her mission to bring her colleagues together. “I just went to a membership meeting and told everyone that the Association isn’t just a union for protection. It isn’t just a liability policy. It’s an Association about professionalism. I want my friends from ISEA, my co-workers in this building, plus members across the state and all of the people I have met through NEA to know that we are all in this together.”
Herring told me that she always knew she wanted to be a teacher and knew she always wanted to stay close to her family in Frankfort. I think her hometown must be happy to keep her.
When I left Herring’s school, just three or four doors down Kyger Street on a hot July day, three elementary age kids who attend Suncrest had set up a lemonade stand. “Oh, yes,” they said with big smiles when I asked if they knew her while they poured lukewarm lemonade. “We like her.”
Teaches First Grade at Winfield Elementary
Crown Point Education Association
ISTA Member 10 years
Update: Sarah Ferraro will always hold education, her teaching colleagues and the Crown Point area close to her heart, but in August 2014, Ferraro decided to make a career change that takes her out of the classroom at Winfield Elementary. ISTA wishes her the best.
Even with a GPS it might be easy to miss the turn to Winfield Elementary a few miles southeast of Crown Point proper. You make a quirky left turn off 231 at the turquoise buildings and circle back north to find it amid the Indiana farmland. Sarah Ferraro, however, never has trouble finding her school.
Why? Well, Ferraro attended Winfield when she was a child. “It’s a K-2 school now,” Ferraro says, “but when I was here it was K-6.” Even more ironic, Ferraro, who has been teaching for 10 years, spent her first nine years teaching in what was her first grade classroom.
She did her student teaching in Crown Point then landed her job back in her home school when she filled a maternity leave. Even though she knew the twists and turns of the building she was new in the ranks of teaching. She says her early days were made easier by an incredible mentor who was across the hall. “She showed me everything and it was incredibly valuable.”
Ferraro, with a gentle, reserved manner, might .brush aside how she might serve as an exemplary role model for today’s newbies but her classroom track record, her Association work and her community contributions suggest that leadership is right up her alley. Plus she’s got high energy, high standards and high expectations.
In her classroom on my day there her 23 high-ability first graders were selecting books and chalking up AR points even though they were excited about pizza lunch (provided by Ferraro herself) and recess on an 80-degree, sun-filled day. Her students were charged up about special end-of-the-year lesson days crafted by Ferraro—insect day, solar day and the upcoming ocean day. “I get books for the topics from the public library and they do research projects for each specialty. I like to be creative.” The energetic vibe—from students and Ferraro alike—was palatable.
In her Association life, she’s volunteered for her local negotiations team, association secretary, RA delegate, PAC committee, governance committee, district council and most recently, she had found herself serving on the ISTA Board of Directors. “You can’t be an island. If you’re involved with the Association you get to see your colleagues every month and it not only gives you education information but I count myself lucky because I found new friendships with members at area schools and around the state.”
I’m not sure how she finds time but Ferraro told me that she ties together some of those school and Association allies with a project that she captains every spring. It raises funds for the American Cancer Society Relay for Life. In June she was part of a team that raised more than $3,000 in an evening walk at the county fairgrounds. “I like the sense of community and comradery that the event brings,” Ferraro says. “Every year we dedicate our efforts to fellow members in our school and community who have had issues with cancer.
“I like to challenge my students and I like to challenge myself. I think that because I am from this community that maybe I care more.” Ferraro, who smiles about all of it—her chosen profession, her beloved community and her cherished school building—never misses that turn off 231.
Teaches Fifth Grade at Cold Springs Environmental Magnet School
Indianapolis Education Association
ISTA Member 7 years
A Tilt-A-Whirl carnival ride changed John Stevenson’s career. And he wasn’t even on the spinning human centrifuge. He’d taken his family on vacation and, natural conversationalist that he is, he started chatting with the college student turned summer-amusement-park worker who was taking tickets. In the short time that his daughters were swirling out of control, he heard about a program set up for teachers who love math and love space. In that short moment Stevenson’s life took on its own new tilt.
Stevenson’s early professional life started in the service then he spent 20 years as an aircraft mechanic plus he has life-long union ties. “My father was a UAW steelworker and my step-father was a mechanic.” But after a couple of layoffs with aircraft work, he decided it was time to reassess his career choices. He went back to school, got his teaching degree and has never looked back.
“I’ve got a lot of energy,” he says as he juggles a computer, shows me student works of art and tells me a story about the rocket ships that his fifth-graders launch every year. “I need to do a lot of things all at the same time. I set up stations for my students that last about 10 minutes because sometimes that’s as long as my attention span lasts. Theirs, too.”
Backstep. How does this mechanic turned high-energy teacher have another career change at the Tilt-A-Whirl? Stevenson was teaching fifth grade and always loved the math components. The ticket-taker happened to be a student at the University of Alabama where a coveted, weeklong, all expenses-paid summer program at the US Rocket Center is offered to select teachers by the Honeywell Corporation.
Home from vacation, Stevenson applied; was accepted for the following summer, and ready, set, go, his program to have students build and launch rockets at Cold Spring Elementary Magnet School took off—so to speak.
And it’s a hefty project. Groups of three or four students create mission patches; design rockets—built out of two-liter soda bottles, Styrofoam lunchroom trays, various tapes, clay weights and trash bags that serve as parachutes; and operate within a strict budget. “I like it that it involves creativity and other disciplines but it’s mostly built around math,” he says. Students spend about two weeks on the project and it includes buying and weighing the parts, drafting a scale drawing, doing stability tests and completing pre-launch wind, time and temperature tests. Then over two days in late May, the students get to let their creations fly in an open field. “Every launch brings squeals.” Most liftoffs are successful. A few end up in trees in neighboring Marian University.
His students told me with extreme enthusiasm about what they learn from the annual blastoffs. Stevenson, too, shows an equal love of the project that changed his career one summer afternoon in Alabama. “The best part is watching the kids learn so many different things doing something that is so much fun. Literally. It is such a blast.”
Teaches Kindergarten at Utica Elementary in Jeffersonville
Greater Clark Education Association
ISTA Member 36 years
About 90 seconds into my interview with Hilda Kendrick-Appiah I knew that I needed more time. More paper. Or both. Her list of accomplishments is long and her teaching career is impressive.
First, let’s look at some of Kendrick-Appiah’s history and accomplishments all while being an ISTA member for 36 years. The short list includes:
- Outstanding Educator Louisville Minority Teacher Recruitment Project
- Greater Clark Teacher of the Year
- Excel Teaching Award from WHAS TV/PNC Bank
- Greater Clark Education Association District Council
- ISTA Minority Affairs Committee Member
- Jeffersonville Township Library Board
- Indiana Curriculum Advisory Council of Indiana State Board of Education
- Indiana Midwest Teacher Advisory Regional Panel for Houghton Mifflin Math Company
Kendrick-Appiah’s list of awards is remarkable, but it’s the little things, the extra steps, the special moments, that impressed me most.
Example one, she once had a student from Japan in her classroom and as a welcoming gesture she taught her kindergarteners to count in Japanese. That’s expanded over the years and they have counted in German, Spanish, French and Chinese.
Example two, she saw students at her church who needed help with reading. She organized tutors and every Sunday offers free assistance. Same with a summer program on Thursdays where students come to her classroom for free remediation and enrichment.
Example three, Kendrick-Appiah told me about one of her students who was seriously injured in a car accident. She spoke with heartfelt emotion like the mishap had happened the night before although it was many years ago. “I witnessed his motionless body for weeks as I visited his hospital room. I witnessed a silence to the world. He changed from an energetic child to a lethargic being. Doctors said he would not recover.” Kendrick visited him daily and read to him, taught him. “One day the child woke up,” said Kendrick. “I tutored him and this miracle child began to relearn his skills.”
It’s that kind of dedication that landed Kendrick-Appiah the 2014 Hoosier Educator of the Year Award at the April 26, ISTA Representative Assembly. “To be selected by my colleagues for the Hoosier Educator Award is an unbelievable honor,” she said. “I have a real desire to help people and my kindergarten students keep me young, keep me active. They certainly keep it exciting.” Then pausing thoughtfully for a moment she added, “When I slow down, I’ll do more community work.” As if she needs to add to her to-do list.
As this year’s Hoosier Ed winner, Kendrick-Appiah will be ISTA’s nominee for the 2015 National Education Association Foundation Award for Teaching Excellence to be held in February 2015. More later if she’s the winner.
Teaches Biology and Zoology
Lafayette Education Association
ISTA Member 14 years
Recent reports show that back in the 1970s 40 percent of the world’s scientists and engineers resided in the United States. Today that number has shrunk to 15 percent. But today those figures don’t feel right. Why? Just for a moment let’s take a peek at the science wing at Lafayette Jefferson High School.
In September I was lucky enough to meet and write about one of Jeff’s award-winning teachers—Joe Ruhl—whose success with science has long inspired students. Just across the hall from Ruhl’s laboratory I’ve now met an equally impressive instructor, Melissa George, who has spent a lifetime enriching the depth of her own scientific knowledge so that she might encourage her students to pursue careers in science and technology.
George has taught science for 18 years—14 of those in the Lafayette area. She says that increasing her own knowledge through professional opportunities helps enrich the lives of Jeff students. And she has gone to unbelievable lengths for professional development.
Look at her short list. She coordinated the student competition in the Indiana Science Academic Super Bowl, took eighth graders to the regional Purdue Scientific Fair for 10 years and served as a liaison for multiple Purdue STEM education outreach projects. Along the way she picked up her Ph.D. in science education.
Reserved about her accomplishments, George says she does it because, “I want to make science happen for any student who is interested regardless of their socioeconomic level.” Oftentimes she has used grant money or her own money to pay for kids who otherwise might not be able to partake.
While her success list is long, George quietly told me about her recent experience as an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the National Science Foundation. In July of 2013, she set sail to assist scientists on a 19-day program with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Teacher at Sea program. From the bridge of the Ship Oscar Dyson, she blogged about the weather, sea creatures, sound waves and Alaskan Pollack—fish widely distributed in the North Pacific. George grew up in California and loves being near the ocean and studying its inhabitants. “My students learn best through authentic experiences,” she said. “I hope my NOAA experience offers my biology and zoology students a view of what it’s like to be an ocean scientist.” Hundreds apply to participate in the NOAA science research each year. George was one of only 25 accepted to board the vessel.
“My life-long passion is working with under-served populations. If I can make a difference in helping students see, understand and learn about how to answer some of the questions in science, well, I will help my students make choices.”
There’s no doubt that teachers like George can help create the next generation of students who make our world better and perhaps can reverse the decline in the number of scientists in the U.S. or right here in Indiana.
Drives School Bus for La Porte Community School Corporation
ISTA Member 1 year
Gail Cains drove her morning bus route as usual on Jan 23. By early afternoon as she prepared for her afternoon route the forecast had turned grim. Fog and whiteout snow conditions. “Even before 2 pm everyone at the bus depot was saying it was going to get bad. By 3 pm it was bad,” Cains said. Drivers on the radio claimed that windshield wipers were freezing, windows were fogging, traffic was creeping dangerously slow. “Nothing was working,” Cain remembers. “But not for me. I drive an old bus. And I like my old bus. It just goes.”
Not every driver would welcome being assigned one of the old buses. Especially bus number 13. But when Cains was hired as a permanent driver for the La Porte Community School Corporation more than a year ago, she liked it. “My son’s lucky number is 13 so I was okay with getting that old 13. From day one I named him ‘Lucky.’”
But let’s get back to the story Cains told me about Jan. 23.
She was the first bus headed back to the depot during the snowstorm. Her boss, Terry Busse, radioed and said, “Bus 13? Are you empty?” Cains was empty. Busse asked if she was willing to help with a situation where a warm bus was needed. “And I’m not a person who says ‘no.’”
Minutes later Cains met a police escort and headed the wrong way down Interstate 94 toward a snowstorm highway pileup with a police car on either side of her bus. “At first I couldn’t see much because of the blinding snow, but I will never forget the scene. It looked like a junkyard. It was four miles of wreckage before we got to the real scene of the accident—50 cars and 16 semitrailers.”
For three hours first responders, police and firefighters worked to free people from the wreckage. Many of the injured waited on Lucky. “I needed to get people to the hospital but my bus was headed the wrong direction on the shoulder of the highway. Police officers cleared enough space for me to make a three-point turn and told me not to stop—to get to the hospital.”
Cains says her bus did just that. Conditions were still horrible—more than two feet of snow—but again with police escorts Cains drove against three lanes of traffic with her injured passengers.
She’ll never forget that day. Three people died in the pileup and more than 20 were injured. “It was incredible to see all the emergency workers who came together against terrible conditions to save people’s lives. I was just one of many. Cains received an award from the school corp for her efforts.
Quick to give credit to others, Cains says she was just lucky that she was at the right place at the right time in her old Lucky 13 that day.
Teaches Grades 4-5 Multi-Age Gifted and Talented
ISTA Member 17 years
Jay Vahle’s easy-going, calm mannerisms fooled me. I would never have guessed some of the Wow! moments that decorate his life.
His most recent Wow! moment landed on the last day of school in December when nearly all the staff had departed for the holiday break. Vahle opened an email that said he’d received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
Given annually to 102 outstanding K-12 science and mathematics teachers from across the country, the winners are selected by a panel of scientists, mathematicians and educators. Winners receive a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation. They also are invited to Washington, DC, for several days of educational and celebratory events, including visits with members of Congress.
Vahle says his mouth dropped open when he read the email. “I sat there staring at the screen. Everyone was already gone for break so I really couldn’t share the honor.” Well, most everyone except the teacher in the classroom next door. And Vahle’s neighbor just happens to be his wife, Janet, who teaches grades 2-3 gifted and talented. He popped in the door and said, “I just got an email from the White House.” Pretty good Wow! moment.
Jay and Janet Vahle’s side-by-side placement in itself is another twinkling moment. Janet had actually applied for a G-T position at Woodbrook Elementary and the principal, who knew Jay and was looking for two G-T educators, agreed to a second interview only if Janet brought her husband back for round two. An unexpected offer. Another surprising moment. He accepted the position and both have been at the Carmel school ever since. Plus they take that proximity thing seriously. They live across the street from school. “It’s great to be so close. Our four kids were just steps away from school when younger.”
Vahle says getting the news that their firstborn was really a pair of twins just an hour before a back-to-school night years ago ranks right up there with those other heart-stopping moments.
Vahle says he is not sure what he will do with the cash award that comes with his most-recent honor, but admits that every day in his classroom is a thrill. “Honestly, teaching is the most rewarding, most fulfilling career possible.”
Teaches Special Ed Grades 3-5 at
ISTA Member 7 year
At this holiday time of year when most kids and even adults have long wish lists of grand items, some lists are much more modest. Tracy Sipes, who teaches in Shelbyville, told me how thrilled her student teacher was the day before my visit. Why? Not only had the student teacher just landed a permanent position at Hendricks Elementary but her wish list for simple things—markers, pencils, erasers, pens—had been filled for free. Where? At a place called the Giving T.R.E.E.—a program started by Sipes.
T.R.E.E. stands for Teaching Resources for Education and Enrichment. Three years ago Sipes bought a pillow and a blanket for a student who needed some help. She also noticed that her kids were hungry and lacked classroom supplies. She bought snacks. She bought supplies. She knew many of her colleagues were doing the same since more than 60 percent of students in her elementary qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch. “I just kept thinking about how I could help,” says Sipes. “I wanted to help the students and the teachers—especially beginning teachers who needed to make a good start.” It wasn’t long before the Giving T.R.E.E. sprouted.
Sipes’ partnered with fellow educator Sandy Bostic and volunteer Pam Lemmons and her church—Hope’s Point—that offered space to house a free store for teachers. Baskets of yarn, flash cards, buckets of pens and pencils, bins of staplers and erasers, old games, stacks of magazines and loads of math manipulatives line the floors and shelves of the donated space. Church and community volunteers contribute supplies or funding plus help staff the store a few days each month. “It wouldn’t work without the efforts of many,” Sipes says. “Teachers donate unneeded supplies and retired teachers get to clean closets and others get to stock up.” Plus local Kroger, Hallmark and Starbucks stores ask patrons to fill drop boxes with supplies.
“It’s a gift,” said Stands Rumple, an ISTA member who teaches art at Waldron Junior-Senior High School in Shelbyville and who spied a stack of cardboard rounds for a hat project. “I find something every month and I use it all.”
What’s on Sipes’ wish list? More donations—especially dry erase markers—but cash donations are accepted as well. If your wish list is to clear your shelves this season, donations are welcome at Hope’s Point, 1703 S. Miller Ave., Shelbyville, IN 46176.
Teaches students with moderate to severe intellectual disabilities
At RISE Learning Center
Southside Special Services Education Association
ISTA Member 6 years
Not only does Jamie Stahly work full time as a teacher for moderate to severe intellectual disabilities students at RISE Learning Center in Indianapolis, but she runs the school’s food pantry, has a 14-month-old daughter, is expecting a second and is working on her master’s degree in Applied Behavior Analysis. That daily to-do list might daunt most but she does it all with a twinkle and a hug.
I visited RISE on Halloween morning. Pirates, ghosts, witches and skeletons—both students and staff in costume—paraded to Stahly’s classroom door for a sugar buzz treat. Yet most of her trick-or-treaters seemed more touched by her loving remarks or her costume compliments than the Milky Ways.
Stahly has taught in a Comprehensive Intervention Program classroom for six years with anywhere from four to 12 students ranging from 19-22 years old. Much of her work helps her students with self-help skills—tooth brushing or dressing; vocational skills—learning how to work at Goodwill or Gleaners; food pantry skills—how to stock shelves or shop for food; functional academics—teaching students the specific skills for a specific job. “It might be that Billy needs to know how to count to three for a job at Goodwill so that’s what our goal is. I don’t worry about getting to 10,” Stahly says. “I am trying to get them to transition to day programs or to the next step in their lives.”
“She doesn’t get enough credit,” said a father who stopped by between trick-or-treaters. His son, Ron, who has Down syndrome, has been in Stahly’s class for six years. “It’s unbelievable to see how she gets him to accomplish things. He knows he’s accountable when he’s in her classroom. She’s taught him to help himself and that helps us as parents.”
Stahly’s extraordinary work has been recognized by ISTA as well. In 2012 she was awarded the JD Miller Young Activist Award that recognizes members for accomplishments in the first five years as education employees. Stahly, who is also co-president of her local, shuns the acknowledgement saying that her best reward is the days when she sees a hint of gradual improvement in her beloved students. “They are worlds smarter than we know.”