State teachers of the year attending Walden tackle the toughest challenges.

By Nancy Grund
January 2011

No matter where you live, what you do for a living, or whether you have school-age children (or grandchildren), education—from kindergarten through high school—affects you. The quality of your local school system can dictate who buys a house in your neighborhood, what the long-term economic forecasts are for your area, and where employers choose to locate their businesses.

As parents, policymakers, community members, volunteers, and leaders in businesses and nonprofits, we can all play an active role in improving our education system. The Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership at Walden University has long been leveraging the power of teaching and technology to prepare educators to make a difference. Here, several of America’s state teachers of the year—among the more than 60 who are Walden students—weigh in with solutions from their own classrooms and suggestions for ways we can partner with schools in our own communities.

Equipping Students with Technology Tools

Technology surrounds us at home and at work, yet many students have little or no access to it in the classroom. Walden’s top teachers recognize that technology is a critical component in preparing students for the 21st-century workplace, and they are working to bridge the technology gap in classrooms around the country.

Byron Ernest, 2010 Indiana Teacher of the Year and a Walden Doctor of Education student, may have earned his undergraduate teaching degree in the pre-computer era, but he has evolved into a technology leader. Using his high school classroom as a model, he is leading his district’s effort to turn traditional classrooms into 21st-century learning environments.

“Technology in the classroom is not about unloading crates of equipment in the classroom,” Ernest says. “We must look at why we are using technology and how it engages students.

“For a current research project, we have collected data on 3,000 corn plants to study rootworm resistance,” he explains. “We keep the data on Wiki sites. Every day our students are sharing information and collaborating with Ph.D. researchers at companies like Monsanto.”

Ernest says that relevancy excites students and gives local companies an edge. “The digital revolution is not about teachers using technology; it is about enabling the student through the use of technology.”

Michael Flynn, 2008 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year and Walden Doctor of Education student, agrees. “Students must learn to be creative producers rather than passive consumers of technology. The idea is to give kids authentic learning experiences using technology,” says Flynn, who served on the steering committee of the Commonwealth Readiness Project, which culminated in a 10-year strategic plan for education in Massachusetts. One of the project’s main findings: that the K–12 system must help students boost their technology and media literacy skills.

Flynn is taking that mandate to heart. In his second-grade class, students write, edit, and record stories; incorporate music and sound effects; and then synchronize them to iPods in the school’s Listening Center. “Instead of listening to professionally produced materials, students can now hear stories produced by their classmates,” Flynn says. “Learning is more meaningful when students create something they can share.”

In science class, his students create presentations on topics such as the weather that are broadcast to the whole school. “Technology provides the incentive for students to learn more since they need to know the subject matter in depth if they are going to share their knowledge,” says Flynn, who views technology as a vehicle to extend tried-and-true teaching methods. His passion for technology has led him to offer professional development classes for colleagues on video presentations in the classroom and digital storytelling.

“If students start early, as technology evolves, they can evolve with it,” says Flynn. “We need to change the notion that technology is an accent. It is a vehicle to push student learning further than wecould in conventional ways.”

Technology must be incorporated as part of the curriculum, not treated as an add-on, agrees Eric Langhorst, 2008 Missouri Teacher of the Year and Walden Doctor of Education student.

“It is assumed that new teachers know how to use technology,” says Langhorst, who was recently named to the Tech & Learning 100 list, which recognizes individuals who have been instrumental in the creation and advancement of the use of technology in the last 30 years. “Yet teachers still must learn how to use technology in effective ways with the right classroom techniques.”

Langhorst has successfully engaged students at his junior high school by empowering them to become producers of content in the classroom. Each year, for example, his social studies students produce a 60-second television advertisement to help Abraham Lincoln win the 1860 presidential election, which requires a broad understanding of the issues and the candidates. “They create their commercial using free video-editing software, and the finished products are shown in the classroom,” explains Langhorst. “They become active participants in the learning process.”

His junior high students have also gained practical, technology-driven experience by assisting Langhorst with his Doctoral Study project: creating a pre-1960 archive for a county museum. “Students are acquiring skills that benefit the community. They are using technology to organize a project and to make information more accessible,” Langhorst explains.

Two Sides of Testing

Why is standardized testing at the heart of the education debate?

a. It may work against disadvantaged students.
b. It can limit teacher input and creative freedom in the classroom.
c. It may not be a valid measurement of student or school success.
d. All of the above.

If you answered all of the above (and maybe came up with a few answers of your own), you have a basic understanding of some of the challenges facing classroom teachers, who are charged with preparing students for success at every level. Yet testing can help as well as hinder the education process, according to Walden’s top teachers.

“Testing provides a benchmark, a placeholder,” says 2008 Arkansas Teacher of the Year Paul Gray, a Doctor of Education student. “It is one indicator of progress.”

He applauds many recent initiatives, including the No Child Left Behind Act, that have focused attention on the education needs of all children, particularly the economically disadvantaged and minority populations. But Gray admits, “The act has made the classroom a more complicated setting. You have multi-interest, multi-ability students, from advanced placement to special services, all in one classroom, and you need to teach and reach all of them. It’s a monumental task.”

Acknowledging that teaching is part art, part science, he explains, “The magic happens when you reach children in ways that are not in the lesson plan. A skilled veteran teacher can take a prescriptive curriculum and make it interesting and broader.” He expresses concern, however, that many teachers do not have the talent or experience to make that leap, especially if they are following strict curriculum directives to meet testing requirements.

During the sabbatical that accompanied his state-teacher-of-the-year honor, Gray interviewed nearly 90 Arkansas high school students at risk of failing. “These students had no learning disabilities; they should have been doing well in school,” says Gray. His findings suggest that the surveyed students are seeking more hands-on courses—75 percent of high school dropouts are kinesthetic, or tactile, learners, he says—that better match their interests, such as emergency medical technician and cooking classes. “You must get students inspired and interested before you can reach them. Once you reach them, rising test scores are sure to follow,” he says.

A special educator for nearly 30 years, 2008 Nebraska Teacher of the Year Mary Schlieder, a Doctor of Education student, has spent the majority of her career teaching students with behavioral challenges, such as autism spectrum disorders and attention deficit disorder. Schlieder believes that good teaching is the key to strong test scores. “My goal in the past few years has been to improve student engagement. When students are in a classroom for 45 minutes, they disengage after the first 10 minutes,” she says.

Through active learning, including project work, vocabulary cards, and other manipulatives, Schlieder is keeping her students interested. “I am passionate that all students deserve a quality education, and the test scores will fall into place.”

She also points out that Nebraska educators spent 10 years developing state assessments. “Nebraska is one of the only states to involve teachers in the process,” Schlieder says. “It is clear that we must prepare students to be problem solvers and critical thinkers who can conduct research and interpret data.”

To that end, each student at her high school is paired with a teacher who serves as the student’s mentor for four years, offering academic advising, counseling, and mentoring. An open academic period each school day provides time for students to receive special instruction, access assignments, and prepare for testing. To further improve classroom and test performances of children dealing with conditions that create behavioral and social challenges, Schlieder created Schools With Open Arms, a series of initiatives to support challenged students in the classroom. As part of that program, Circle of Friends trains student peer mentors about the characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome so they can help students with Asperger’s develop social skills and feel more comfortable in the classroom. With recently obtained federal funding, she is now assessing the effectiveness of this innovative use of peer mentors.

Listen to Teacher Leaders

Think back to your grade school days. Whether it was the second-grade teacher who won you over with kindness or the high school teacher who helped you finally understand algebra, chances are that one of your teachers made a difference in your life. Now those teachers are getting the chance to lead change in their schools and districts without leaving the classrooms they love.

Stephanie Doyle, 2009 Virginia Teacher of the Year and a Walden M.S. in Education student, took steps of her own to jump-start teacher leadership development in her state. Doyle and a colleague created a branch of the national Milken Educator Network to “embrace and uplift the teaching profession and work with annual Milken Educator Award winners to promote change,” she says. The network sponsors a Teachers of Promise Institute for prospective teachers, pairing them with top-notch educators to talk about their future careers and all facets of education. “Even as college students, aspiring teachers must begin viewing themselves as leaders,” Doyle notes. “Before they set foot in the classroom, we can help them learn to become team players.”

The road to leadership was not as direct for Doyle. “I learned by trial and error when leaders of my own school team began retiring,” she says. “Many teachers feel that they do not have a voice in decision-making, but the input of those on the ground level can make the biggest difference.”

Recognizing that teacher leadership will become even more vital in the years to come, Doyle has created her own mentoring program to cultivate leadership skills in young women. The Girls Rising Onto Womanhood (GROW) program is designed to help at-risk middle school girls build social and academic skills. Doyle helps students with their homework assignments and organizes volunteer activities and outings, such as a trip to Washington, D.C., with the goal of broadening opportunities for the students to attend college.

Ann Marie Taylor, 2008 South Carolina Teacher of the Year and Doctor of Education student specializing in Administrative Leadership for Teaching and Learning, believes all teachers should have the opportunity to become leaders. “They have a pulse on the community, something that is often lacking at the administrative level,” says Taylor. “You cannot promote change or enlist followers without it.”

A commitment to service and mentoring is essential for aspiring teacher leaders, she adds. “You must show your servant’s heart and prove that you are not afraid to get your hands dirty and fight for the underdog.”

Taylor’s first mentor, who taught students with severe and profound disabilities, was a strong advocate for the underdog, and her lessons resounded with Taylor, an elementary special education teacher. “She taught me that every day you bring everything you have to students and hope they take something away with them.” From incorporating music in her teaching to offering lessons in a game-show format complete with prizes, Taylor is breaking down barriers to reach the children in her special education classes.

Recognizing the value of mentoring in her own professional development, Taylor obtained state funding to create a mentor training program. Now in its third year, the program has certified some 350 teachers as mentors to work with and support first-year special education teachers throughout South Carolina. And Taylor’s leadership is not limited to the education system: Recently, she was responsible for getting her county to restart a Special Olympics program that ended nearly two decades ago.

“One of the best pieces of advice I ever got as a new teacher was to follow your interests,” says Deborah Tonguis, 2009 Louisiana Teacher of the Year. “Let those areas that you love find you. And that’s what happened to me. It’s almost like the Walden program found me and screamed at me, ‘Yes, you are a teacher leader, and let’s see where you can go from here.’

“In teacher leadership we’re there to develop and create opportunities for teachers to become better teachers and to empower them,” Tonguis adds. “We know it’s going to translate into a better life for our students.”

60+ State Teachers of the Year Call Walden Home

Walden University is proud to be the higher education choice of more than 60 state teachers of the year. Top teachers in 33 states—from Alaska to Florida and states in between—four U.S. international territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity have selected Walden to continue their education. In addition to earning graduate degrees, they share their expertise with Walden students and faculty in the online classroom and doctoral residencies.

Watch videos of state teachers of the year from Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, and New Mexico.

What can you do?

Here’s what Walden’s top teachers suggest you can do to improve the education system:

Parents

  • We need to create a dialogue with parents. When students go home, they need to be creating instead of sitting in front of the computer playing games. If parents can see all the possibilities of technology, they can push their children to do creative work. Michael Flynn, 2008 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year
  • Our first duty as teacher leaders is to seek ways to improve learning. Teachers must find ways to work cooperatively with parents to make learning a collaborative enterprise. Stephanie Doyle, 2009 Virginia Teacher of the Year

Employers

  • Employers need to spend time in the classroom. I would like a CEO to see what I do for a day or a week. CEOs need to see firsthand what a complex environment the classroom truly is. Paul Gray, 2008 Arkansas Teacher of the Year
  • Somehow we need a better flow of information from the business world to the K–12 and higher education system. We don’t communicate enough. Interesting conversations are not happening. Mary Schlieder, 2008 Nebraska Teacher of the Year

Community Members

  • Without the right people making decisions on the school board or in the state legislatures, the battle for education is uphill. As registered, informed voters, we can all be involved by exercising our right to vote. Ann Marie Taylor, 2008 South Carolina Teacher of the Year
  • There is a growing disconnect between what children need and what they get. The business community is vocal about the skills they are seeking. We must create a digital partnership with local business and community members to give students those skills. Eric Langhorst, 2008 Missouri Teacher of the Year

Classroom Technology Myths

When it comes to using technology in the classroom, a recent study by The Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership found it has a positive impact on student learning, engagement, and the development of 21st-century skills. Findings from Educators, Technology and 21st Century Skills: Dispelling Five Myths include:

  • Teachers who use technology frequently report greater benefits to student learning, engagement, and technology skill development than teachers who spend less time using technology to support learning.
  • Teachers who have completed their initial certification or licensure since 2000 do not believe their pre-service programs taught them how to teach 21st-century skills or how to effectively incorporate technology into instruction.
  • There is little association between a teacher’s years of experience and the frequency of technology use in the classroom.

Find out the five myths here.

Linking Teacher Learning to Student Success

In a unique collaboration with Tacoma Public Schools in Tacoma, Washington, Walden University sponsored a study that compared the reading fluency of students taught by Walden-master’s-educated teachers with those students taught by non-Walden-master’s-educated teachers.

Results of the study revealed a greater impact by Walden teachers on their students’ reading success.

Key highlights of the study, which evaluated three years of data on 35 teachers and 712 students, found:

  • Students of teachers who graduated from Walden’s M.S. in Education program with a specialization in elementary reading and literacy had gains in reading fluency that were, on average, 14 percent greater than students of non-Walden-master’s-educated teachers.
  • Gains were largest in first grade, where students of Walden teachers averaged 5.4 more words per minute than other students.
  • The positive impact Walden teachers had on student reading fluency translated into more efficient use of instructional time. The findings suggest that the cumulative effect of having a Walden teacher in grades 1–5 would have a combined gain in reading fluency of 11.6 words per minute.

Read the report here