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The Making of a Master Educator

It takes learning from colleagues, listening to students, and lots of time.

Found In: School Life

What stands out in Stephen Bongiovi's mind is a great professor in his master's degree program. For Mary Beth Solano, it's a story about kindergarteners in the bathroom. And for Joe Galego, a lesson he learned from a nurse.

But for all of them, becoming a skilled educator took years of experience on the job and a lot of help from their colleagues. They insist there's no shortcut to achieving excellence in teaching.

Many people talk about boosting teacher quality these days. Some districts have tried offering bonuses to those who raise their students’ test scores. That approach has consistently failed. Few policymakers have bothered asking skilled educators themselves how they got to be so good.

So we did that, using an online discussion board, Facebook, and other avenues.

Many who responded, like Bongiovi, Solano, and Galego, remembered incidents that shaped their evolving practice. But almost all said this is not something you learn overnight, or in a year or two. It takes time.

“The reason seasoned teachers seem to have a lot more skills is that they have had lots of opportunities to learn from their own failures and the successes of others,” said Suzanne Dunn, a middle school reading teacher from Maine, on our discussion board.

What takes so long? It’s learning how to work with the wide range of complex human beings found in even the most homogeneous class.

“Listening to your students is the most important skill you can learn as a teacher,” said Dunn. “However, along with that comes the importance of doing something with the listening that shows students they were heard.”

Great educators must know their subject matter, but that’s just the start. They must also master the art of engaging young minds.

That was high school English teacher Stephen Bongiovi’s focus. Now retired, Bongiovi was the 2005-2006 New York State Teacher of the Year. Several years ago, he made a surprising discovery in his own personnel files: At the end of his first year, an administrator recommended that he be let go.

That proposal was not carried out. Bongiovi doesn’t know why, but he does remember that he wasn’t a master teacher at first—far from it.

Bongiovi had a breakthrough in a master’s program at Hofstra University, where he worked with Professor Charles Calitri. “I remember him asking me, ‘Do you want to learn English, or do you want to become a better teacher?’” Bongiovi’s answer—clearly the right one from Calitri’s point of view—was to become a better teacher.

Calitri was all about active learning. He showed his graduate students a simple exercise for teaching students about prepositions. He drew a figure on the blackboard, and had students wad up balls of masking tape and throw them at the figure. Then he asked them to describe where the ball stuck: on the figure, over the figure, underneath, and so on.

It was a simple lesson that Bongiovi later used, but more important was the pedagogical approach.

Above: Stephen Bongiovi

Bongiovi also joined the National Council of Teachers of English and picked up more ideas for active learning from the group’s publications. Like this one: When he assigned a novel, he asked students, working in small groups, to choose a sentence they felt was the most important in each chapter, and explain why.

Then he had the class debate the choices.

“It doesn’t really matter which sentence they pick,” he says. “What’s important is the discussion and how it illuminates the novel.”

All through his career, Bongiovi learned from colleagues, and never more than when he became department head. Part of his job was to watch less experienced colleagues teach and offer feedback. Bongiovi benefited as much as they did. “I learned from every lesson I observed.”

For Mary Beth Solano, recently retired from teaching English and language arts in Colorado, the incident that most shaped her work happened before she even had her own class. She was a teaching assistant, working her way through college, when an experienced kindergarten teacher told her about losing track of two little children, a boy and a girl. “She found them in the bathroom, naked as jaybirds, apparently comparing bodies,” recalls Solano. “She had the presence of mind to say to them, ‘People have mostly the same body parts, but we’re different in what we choose to wear. Why don’t you put your clothes back on and let’s see what all the kids in the class chose to wear today.’”

A memorable story, but what did Solano learn from it?

“She didn’t get mad at them or make a big deal of it. In any situation, you can choose to escalate, or you can look for a way that stops what’s happening but keeps everybody’s self-esteem intact and gets them back on track. That story has helped me make decisions my whole life.”


Above: Joseph Galego

Joe Galego is a high school security guard in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and a trainer for other security guards. His stand-out story is from a training he took in crisis prevention back in 2002, with prison guards, nurses, drug rehabilitation workers, and others who sometimes have to deal with violent people. One rehab center nurse told the group that she once walked into a patient’s room and he threw a bag of urine at her.

How was that story relevant to a high school security guard? “We analyzed that situation and realized that this man lived there,” says Galego. “It was his home. She was the visitor. Maybe if she had knocked on the door before entering, he would not have felt she was invading his privacy.”

In other words, try to see the situation from the other person’s point of view.

That meant, when he was an elementary school guard, that he often would sit on the ground when he was working with a child so he could relate at eye level.

Now that he’s in a high school, “some of them are so tall, I’d have to stand on a chair to be at eye level,” he says, but his approach is the same.

Galego trains guards in non-violent intervention using what he calls “verbal judo.” The first rule: Don’t react as soon as something upsets you. The second: Don’t take it personally. It’s their anger coming out—it’s not about you.

When a student mouths off at him, he’s likely to respond, “I didn’t expect that coming from you. I don’t talk to you like that.”

In his training course, he tells colleagues, “You have to remain calm and talk softly. If you scream, they’ve won.

“Sometimes it’s tough to remember you’re the adult and they are kids—with so many different backgrounds and problems.”

Professional learning communities

Photo by: Janet Hostetter

Art teacher Maureen Gunderson and her fellow educators in Le Center, Minnesota, thought they had a great plan for improving student achievement in their small, rural town. The plan laid out how small groups of teachers would work together to evaluate and upgrade their work with students.

“We were really excited,” she says. “We thought we had designed a model for small schools.” So they applied for state funding that was intended for alternative compensation plans.

Six months, five rejections, five resubmissions, and one lawsuit later, state officials reluctantly approved it—on the same day they would have been forced by a court to release records detailing why all the earlier versions of the proposal were turned down. (The lawsuit was brought by Education Minnesota, a joint affiliate of NEA and the American Federation of Teachers.)

What was the sticking point? Officials never said so in writing, but they warned in a phone call that the plan would never be approved unless the district changed the way teachers were judged eligible for extra compensation.

Le Center wanted teachers to earn most of their extra pay by working with small groups of their peers, analyzing and evaluating each other’s videotaped lessons. The state wanted hierarchy: teachers rated by someone at a higher level.

The Le Center program—now going strong in its sixth year—is part of a growing trend in which educators take responsibility for improving their practice by working in small groups called “professional learning communities.”

Professional learning communities take many forms. In some, a teacher presents a problem and the group tries to help. Others are support groups of teachers doing research in their classrooms.

In Le Center, teachers videotape their own lessons once a semester, show the tapes to their colleagues, and get feedback. Everyone in the group benefits, not just the person presenting the tape, Gunderson says. “Sometimes you watch a tape and think, ‘That’s never worked for me, and now I see why! I’ll try it their way.’”

National Board Certification

National Board Certification is one of the most demanding and the most rewarding professional development challenges an educator can take on.


Photo by: John Elkins

Ask NaShonda Cooke, a special education teacher in Durham, North Carolina, who earned her certificate in 2008. When a friend recruited her for the program, she says, “I had no idea what I was getting myself into.”

From October through March, she estimates she put at least 10 hours a week into the process, carrying out four major projects about assessment, communication, and other skill areas which an accomplished teacher must master.

Cooke had a four-year-old and a six-month-old baby when she started, so she had to rely on family for extra child care.

Only one in three candidates is certified in his or her first year, but Cooke was one of those. She credits a strong support program organized by the North Carolina Association of Educators in which candidates worked together with the help of teachers already board certified to write their reports and assemble their portfolios. She says the most important thing she learned was, “make it your own—don’t just put in all the buzzwords. What you write has to reflect who you are.”

Who are the main beneficiaries of Cooke’s success? Her students.

With the skills and habits of mind that she learned, she says, if you are one of her students, “you can be guaranteed that I will address your needs as an individual—not just academic, but also social and environmental needs. And I will collaborate with my coworkers to help you.

“Before I went through board certification, I didn’t want anybody to think I didn’t know what I was doing, so I often didn’t ask for help even when I needed it. Now, I have no problem with that. The result is, I can bring more resources and more ideas to the job of helping a student.”

One of the toughest parts of the program for Cooke was saying good things about herself. “I don’t like to toot my own horn,” she says. “But for board certification, you have to describe not just how you do your job, but how you go beyond what’s required.”

The program is run by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, whose board of directors consists mostly of board certified teachers. The board includes NEA President Dennis Van Roekel and Executive Committee member Christy Levings, as well as representatives from the American Federation of Teachers.

Since the program began in 1987, more than 90,000 teachers have been certified. Most states and more than 25 percent of school districts offer financial incentives for teachers seeking National Board Certification.

Elementary school teacher Gail Ritchie of Fairfax County, Virginia, had a pretty good idea what she was getting into when she applied for board certification in 1999. At the time, she had been an instructional assistant for three years and a certified teacher for five, so “I felt like I knew what I was doing, but I thought, ‘Let me see if I really measure up to national standards.’”

She took a course at George Mason University that was a support group for board certification candidates. Eleven of the 12 participants, including Ritchie, achieved certification that year, and the twelfth made it the next year.

“The class had two board-certified facilitators and they pushed us along so we didn’t hit deadlines unprepared,” she says.

All the students gave each other feedback. She had to submit two unedited 20-minute videotapes of herself teaching. “One time, I showed a video I thought was pretty good and I was going to submit it, but other people said, ‘Do you really want to send that?’”

She made a new tape.

The process is somewhat different now, but the heart of it is still self-examination. “You have yourself under a microscope. When I watched my tapes, I saw a lot that I was not impressed with. They made me rethink how I did things.

“Today, I can’t do anything without running through the process in my mind that I learned in National Board Certification: Why am I doing this? What do I hope to accomplish? Is there a better way?”

How did you get so good?

I have taught special education students at the middle school level for over 20 years. What made me so good? Well, for nine years, I had the best educational assistant in the world, Kim Cochran!

Mary Modder (left) and educational assistant Kim Cochran campaigned together for a fair ESP contract.

To be good, you have to like your students and listen to their parents. I sometimes have to work to find endearing qualities in particular students. You can’t fake this. They know if you like them or not.

Kim was my “check” when I started thinking negatively about a student.

I listen to my students’ parents because they know them best and can teach me things about my students that are not on the test! Some parents may not appear to be “Parent of the Year” material, but deep down, all parents want what is best for their children. My most successful success stories have included parent-teacher teamwork.

–Mary Modder, President, Kenosha Education Association, Kenosha, Wisconsin

I have been teaching for about 25 years. When I was younger, I was more prone to anger. Anger is disastrous in a classroom. I learned to be patient, and to use psychology to get students to do what I wanted. They don’t teach you that in teaching preparation courses.

–Robert Emerson, High school English teacher, San Francisco, California

The one thing that changed my outlook on classroom management was the birth of my youngest son. He cried a lot. We later found out he had many food allergies including fruits, vegetables, milk, and soybeans. Life was difficult for everyone in our family. This was when my perspective on parenting began to change, and I realized that other parents have issues that they are dealing with at home. It helped me understand that they need support, not criticism.

–Debbie Jones, Instructional coach, Eufaula, Alabama

I got better the old-fashioned way, bit by bit. Reading, studying, taking classes, attending good in-service sessions, and trying my best every day.

–Ermon Vandy, Speech-language pathologist, Rockville, Maryland

More on the web

See what other educators say about how they got good. Read more about small learning communities. And find out how one school faculty increased parent and community involvement as teachers worked on National Board Certification.


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