Interview: Teacher For America

April 01, 2002 5 min read
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After taking 12 months off from teaching to travel around the world, many educators might dread returning to the daily grind. But not the reigning National Teacher of the Year, Michele Forman. The 56-year-old social studies instructor from Vermont says that after this month, when she passes her title to the nation’s next exemplary educator, she’ll be eager to go back to Middlebury Union High and try new activities inspired by her year of service. It’s something her students are familiar with: Forman’s devotion to mixing things up is what won her the honor in the first place.

The 35-year teaching veteran, for example, helped start her school’s Student Coalition on Human Rights, which organizes events such as hunger strikes and marches to raise awareness of global issues. The national selection committee probably couldn’t have picked a teacher more suited to the job in a year when so many Americans have been wondering what to tell their kids about the ways of the world. And Forman’s innovative in her classroom, too: Students rarely sit still and never in single-file rows. Instead, they’re on the Internet, or reading, or writing, or talking—and sometimes all at once.

With a schedule that takes her to a different city almost every three days to give speeches, meet with the media, and talk to public officials, Forman’s hard to catch. Still, she stopped moving long enough to chat with Teacher Magazine about what she’s learned during her whirlwind tour as top teacher.

Q: How has September 11 affected teachers?

A: None of us had preparation for September 11. Well-trained, good teachers who have trusting, respectful relationships with their students were in a good position to discuss this. But let’s keep in mind that no one was there to support the teachers. The teachers were going through the same shock and grief that we were all going through. They had to, in a sense, put those on a shelf and put their students first. They did, all over the country.

I think teachers are beginning to feel a bit more secure about their ability to handle it now because they’ve had a chance to think about it. There still is a need to talk about it among themselves. And it’s not a need to be told what to do. It’s a need for teachers to put their heads together and talk about how this impacts kids and the teaching of kids. There are more and more misconceptions about what’s going on. Everyone is looking for simple answers, and our job as teachers is to help people realize that there aren’t any.

Q: Five years ago—long before the terrorist attacks prompted Americans to think about the Arab world—you introduced a non-credit Arabic class at your school. Why?

A: I became interested, in the early ‘80s, in world history. Everywhere I turned I kept bumping into the Arabs. I thought, how have I never learned about these people and how important they were? I fell in love with the language. So I started to teach bits to my students. Being teenagers, their ability to absorb language rapidly passed my ability to teach them. I wrote grants and got textbooks. We have music and tapes. It’s been such a thrill. In the beginning, people laughed at the idea. They thought it was so silly. As I told my students, not only is it beautiful and exciting to learn, but hey, if you’re going to go into business, the foreign service, it is a critical language. We don’t have enough people in this country who speak Arabic.

Q: In the real world, have you run into any stereotypes about teaching?

A: People will tell you on the one hand that education in America is in big trouble, that we need to raise the standards, and that they’re not satisfied. But if you talk specifically about the schools to which they’ve sent their children and the teachers their children have had, it’s a very different picture. Wherever I have gone in the country, when people have found out that I am the National Teacher of the Year, they have given me the most wonderful “I had a teacher . . . " stories. Their faces soften; they smile; they open up.

Q: What accounts for that discrepancy?

A: I think that there is today a punitive attitude on the part of some politicians: “You either shape up, or we’re going to take your resources away.” And that’s like saying to a very, very sick patient: “You better shape up, or we’re taking your medication away.” It’s often tied to the very worst types of assessment of student achievement—that is, multiple choice, high-stakes tests. The press picks up on those and pounds on them. And so people have in their heads the idea that our schools and children are failing. Yet that’s not the experience that people are having with their children; it contradicts it.

Q: You have said that your mission is to personalize high school education. How does that work in your classroom?

A: The longer I’ve been in teaching, the more confident I’ve become about adopting many of the methods of my colleagues in primary level education. My classroom looks much more like their classrooms: brightly colored, student projects on the walls, pillows in the corner, music. There’s a very comfortable couch. If anyone comes in with a cold, we’ll make them a cup of mint tea. If they’re hungry, there’s always peanut butter and crackers in the cabinet. You can’t learn when you’re hungry.

Someone who is not an educator may walk in and say, “Wow, these kids are all over the place.” They are all over the place. They’re learning. And learning’s messy stuff. It doesn’t happen in a neat, straight line.

Q: Do you miss not being in the classroom?

A: I miss my students terribly. In December, I opened my e-mail and saw one from 12 or 13 students. The e-mail said, very directly: “Miss Forman. We miss ya. We love ya.” And they attached a [picture] of the 13 of them in a puppy pile in the classroom, one on top of the other. It brought tears to my eyes. I travel with a picture of them.

Q: How do you think the experiences you’ve had this year will affect your teaching when you return to the classroom?

A: I’ve had some wonderful lessons about the diversity of this country—I want to celebrate that with kids. In October, in Salt Lake City, I had the opportunity to hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It was a magnificent experience. Fourteen hours later, I was checking into Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

Something I will try hard to relay to [my colleagues] is, if I have learned one thing this year, it’s that people love teachers. I’ve been on a 757 filled with people, and when the flight attendant announced that they had the National Teacher of the Year on board, the entire 757 broke into applause. I’m a stand- in for teachers across this country and all who have come before us. When you’re a teacher, you don’t always get feedback. The 15-year-old may not come up to you and say, “Wow, you’re going to have a powerful influence on my life.” That same 15-year-old, at 35, might feel that. And to each one of those people I say please, please write and tell that teacher.

—Katharine Dunn


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