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Teacher of the Year: Educator as ‘Lead Learner’

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Under a picture perfect blue sky, preceded by 56 of her state and territory Teacher of the Year peers, Sarah Brown Wessling, an Iowa high school English teacher, walked out of the Oval Office into the Rose Garden of the White House Thursday afternoon flanked by President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. The president described the 2010 National Teacher of the Year as passionate and creative, and highlighted Wessling’s innovative teaching style. He also offered the words of one of Wessling’s students, who described the experience of being in her class in glowing terms: “No discussion was fruitless, no assignment was pointless, and not one day was boring.”

Taking the podium after the president, the 35-year-old Wessling described her classroom as a place where the teacher is the “lead learner” and “the classroom walls are boundless.” The fact that she consigned her desk to a back corner of the room, she explained, “is an outward sign of an implicit philosophy that teaching must be learner-centered.”

Wessling, who teaches 10th-12th grade English at Johnston High School (enrollment 1,300), has been been in the classroom for 11 years, and at her present school for 10. This year, Wessling, the department chair since 2003, created 15 new English courses, according to President Obama. The department’s course list reads more like it comes from a college campus than a high school.

Once students fulfill their requirements, they can select from such classes as “On the Road,” which explores metaphorical and physical journeys; “Sport, Competition, and Culture,” which looks at the cultural significance of sports; and “Genders’ Game,” which takes on the role of gender in history. Other course topics include journalism, persuasive writing and speaking, film as text, and speech.

Bruce Hukee, Wessling’s principal, explained that the school has made an effort to create courses that hold a greater appeal for students. “Sarah was very instrumental in creating classes that are more interesting to kids, giving them the opportunity to pick a class that they are interested in, instead of doing the same type of curriculum,” explained Hukee.

President Barack Obama listens as Sarah Brown Wessling speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House on April 29 after being named the 2010 National Teacher of the Year.
President Barack Obama listens as Sarah Brown Wessling speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House on April 29 after being named the 2010 National Teacher of the Year.
—Susan Walsh/AP

Johnston Community School District Superintendent Clay Guthmiller described the curriculum model as “relevant.” “We have gone to more titled courses to create more interest for our kids and to create a more integrated approach [to learning],” he says.

A National Board-certified teacher, Wessling has won a host of honors, including the Promising Teacher Award and the Future Leader in Education Award, both from the Iowa Council of Teachers of English, and the Iowa Governor’s Scholastic “Favorite Teacher Award.”

Of Wessling’s accomplishments, Hukee said, “I couldn’t be more proud of a teacher—especially Sarah—and the good teaching that we have at our schools. [The nomination] was a great honor for Sarah and our school and the school district. The kids are very proud of her.”

After the ceremony, Wessling described the experience as both “wonderful” and “overwhelming.” And she added, “I would [like to] reiterate how enamored I am with all of my state Teacher of the Year colleagues. They are amazing people with great talents and I am so honored to be a part of that group.”

When asked what she thought was the most pressing problem in education today, Wessling expressed concern about the “massive loss of our teaching force” due to the economy —a problem she described as both “acute” and “severe.” “We need to value our education system and keep teachers [in the classroom].”

“It’s where the rubber hits the road,” Guthmiller agreed. “If you don’t have the teachers, you’re not going to get where you need to go.”

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