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May 09, 2011

And the winner is.....

by Connie Matthiessen

Last week was Teacher Appreciation week, and to mark the occasion, President Obama recognized Michelle Shearer, a high-school chemistry teacher from Maryland, as the nation's 61st Teacher of the Year.

I was curious about the Teacher of the Year Award. Just how does a teacher win this prestigious award, edging out more than approximately 3,500,000 teachers in the U.S.?  Is it like the Oscars: To win, do teachers have to achieve the pedagogic equivalent of losing (or gaining) 40 pounds the way movie stars often do for a blockbuster movie? Are they required to rub shoulders with highly paid and well-connected school administrators at splashy parties? Is it a popularity contest –- or does it recognize teachers for genuine achievement?

I did a little digging, and learned that in fact, the Teacher of the Year award involves a rigorous selection process by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). Students, teachers, principals, and school district administrators can all nominate teachers for the state award.  The national candidate is selected from the pool of state winners by a committee representing 14 respected education organizations.

As for Michelle Shearer, it's hard to talk about her without gushing a little, or even a lot. She's an AP chemistry teacher at Urbana High School in Ijamsville, Maryland, and she's on a mission to inspire students who are traditionally under-represented in science, including women, minorities, and people with learning differences. Shearer, who has a duel certificate in special education and chemistry, also taught at Maryland School for the Deaf. There, she introduced AP Chemistry as a course option, and taught the entire class in American Sign Language. Her work with kids with learning issues has taught her to see "abilities, not disabilities," she says.

Shearer, who went to Princeton, writes, "Upon my graduation, even well-meaning adults asked why I chose teaching when I 'could have done anything I wanted.'…It’s puzzling that one would bemoan what is lacking in our public schools and, in the same breath, question education as a profession for an Ivy League graduate on the basis that teaching simply isn’t 'challenging enough.' ”

At its heart, Shearer's clear vision of teaching  emphasizes the connection between student and teacher: "When students feel that a teacher is genuinely invested in their progress, they become eager to invest in themselves and take ownership of their educational efforts . . .Ultimately, the classroom is my mirror: The energy, determination, and sense of purpose my students display reflect what they see in me."

At a time when teachers are being blamed for failing schools and lagging test scores, Shearer reminds us of the positive and essential role teachers play in the lives of our kids.  

Do you know a teacher who deserves the Teacher of the Year award? Let us know.





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