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Teacher of the Year Don Sternberg: The Principal Will Be Your Sub

Walden University is proud to have more than 150 state teachers of the year, including Don Sternberg, currently working toward advanced degrees at its Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership.

Name: Don Sternberg

Award: 2009 New York State Elementary Principal of the Year

Teaches: Art, school administration (college level)

Teaching Since: 1976

For Don Sternberg, principal of Wantagh Elementary School in Wantagh, N.Y., being appointed New York State Principal of the Year by the School Administration Association of New York State was a nod to the efficacy of his holistic approach to teaching.

His philosophy is “to educate the whole child, physically, nutritionally, as well as mentally, in terms of academics,” says Sternberg, who has been a Walden University professor since 2005. He currently teaches a wide range of classes, including Facilitating Effective Learning for All Students; Using Data to Strengthen Schools; and Creative Positive, Safe, and Effective Learning Environments.

What does “whole child” education look like? At his school, it means that hallways have names like “Respect Road” and “Cooperation Causeway,” in order to remind children of the importance of good character and values, and sportsmanship is recognized with a Golden Sneaker award.

Along with Stony Brook University, the school tracks the weight and height measurements of the students and has instituted a program called Healthy Steppers where students walk a prescribed area around a field each class tries to clock the most miles walked each year. There are also programs that encourage kids to make smart choices at lunchtime.

This type of positive reinforcement and integrated learning is more effective than some of the decreed educative practices that schools deal with today, Sternberg argues. “There’s too much emphasis on results, I think there should be quality assessments, but I don’t think a pencil-paper assessment is exactly fit for every youngster. I’m just concerned that this rush to test is too debilitating,” he says.

Good teaching is the best way to help breed positive holistic development in students, and Sternberg believes that, as a principal, his role is to help create the best teachers possible. “I think that universities are not rigorous enough,” he says. “I think there needs to be a step-by-step approach to earning a degree as a teacher, and I think there needs to be time. Teachers need to apprentice, to learn from a mentor. I just don’t think that a person can spend four years in college and maybe two semesters student teaching and then walk out and be an outstanding teacher.”

In addition to working as a professor with Walden students, Sternberg has found a way he can help teachers at his own school get the kind of peer-learning they need to excel: He acts as a substitute teacher. Each of his teachers chooses a partner and, several times a year, Sternberg takes one of their classes for a day so that one partner can observe the other’s teaching style. This way, they’re able to collaborate on lesson plans and borrow from the best of the techniques they see used in a new classroom.

“Teachers do have faculty meetings where there is the expectation that they’re going to work together, but I think what makes this unique is the fact that I will cover their class,” he says. “It sends a message: I’m going to give up my time during the day to go and work with your youngsters so that you can be free to team teach. It sends a message that their collaborative effort is so important that I want to be involved and I want to help and provide myself as a resource.”

It’s a method that’s working: Sternberg’s school has been awarded both the New York State Blue Ribbon of Excellence Award and the United States Department of Education Award for Overall Excellence.