03 Dec 2014
51° Mostly Cloudy

A Great Group of Great Teachers in Morgan County by Elizabeth Davis, Lindy L. Johnson, & Peter Smagorinsky, UGA


In August, in the subscribers-only version of the AJC, Ty Tagami wrote a report in which he inquired into the question, What makes the best teachers the best? That question has been at the heart of the national movement to develop valid teacher evaluation systems that are sensitive to the requirements of the job and the conduct needed to meet them. For the most part, the answers provided by policymakers have been unsatisfying, relying on student test scores to assess teachers. Few who understand school believe that this narrow means of assessment can capture the complexity of teachers’ work.


Tagami and colleagues visited the classrooms of those named as their school or district’s Teacher of the Year and interviewed parents and students to see if the qualities that distinguish the greatest of teachers can be identified. They found that award-winning teachers:

·         work hard at relating to and making connections with kids, often through emotional links and trust that encourage students to believe that they can achieve;   

·         understand that people learn in different ways, and in turn develop a diverse repertoire of teaching methods, often teaching from well outside the script provided by the textbook;

·         explain subjects and assignments clearly and support students in meeting expectations for academic and interpersonal conduct;

·         love and are enthusiastic about their work and often undertake it with a contagious passion; and

·         work long, dedicated hours outside the classroom in spite of declining resources.


The AJCinvestigation confirms what much educational research has found about teaching qualities: that the work is complex and difficult and requires exceptional dedication if it is to be done well. Those who undertake this career and persist diligently while demonstrating these qualities have earned the lifelong thanks and respect of countless students and teachers across the country.


We had an opportunity to work with the English/Language Arts faculty from one school district who embody the admirable traits identified by the AJC. In July we held a workshop for Morgan County teachers of English and Language Arts on the topic of “Pathways to a 21st Century Writing Pedagogy.” Twelve teachers from schools in Morgan County made the drive up to Athens each day for one week to talk and learn about developing a writing curriculum that includes attention to digital writing tools, from blogs to e-portfolios to storytelling media and well beyond.


The workshop was designed to integrate theory, research, and practice so that the teachers could undertake a reconsideration of their approach to writing instruction, a major feature of the Common Core State Standards. The teachers’ practical needs drove the workshop activities.


Their interests extended beyond learning a few new tricks to use in the classroom. Rather, they sought to develop substantive, durable ideas that would enable them to draw on workshop principles as they planned their teaching in their different schools and grade levels over the next few years. In addition, the participation of teachers from across the school system enabled them to articulate challenges and needs with colleagues from different sites and grade levels. This sort of extended conversation is rarely afforded by the demands of the job and the logistics of the schools.


Although the summer workshop setting only allowed us to talk about teaching, rather than observe their teaching of kids, we believe that we can say that in Morgan County, there are a lot of great English and Language Arts teachers. Morgan County is like the majority of school districts in Georgia in that it is so short on resources that it can’t fund a full academic year. The teachers referred to their 10 “furlough” days—school days eliminated without pay from the academic calendar—as part of their annual routine. Underpaid to begin with, and further penalized with an additional 5% reduction in salary and time with students, they nonetheless take an enthusiastic, professional approach to their work that goes well above and beyond the call of duty.


This love and gusto for teaching inspired them to spend part of their summer in a rigorous professional development workshop. Their passion for kids and teaching impressed us throughout the week as they discussed ways to make their classes more rewarding, interesting, and engaging by providing more compelling writing instruction. Their effort to make their teaching relevant to their students’ needs was quite apparent in their interest in adapting instruction to the electronic capabilities of new technologies that so infatuate their students.


This technological element of their teaching in turn contributed to the repertoire of teaching strategies that they developed during the week. People learn in different ways and should not be herded through a single assessment chute at the end of instruction. By thinking about the many kinds of writing that their students might do, the various genres and forms their writing might involve, and the tools through which they may compose their texts, the teachers in Morgan County demonstrated their own sensitivity to human difference and their understanding that effective teaching needs to accommodate the widest variety of students possible, rather than rewarding only those personality types that are suited for the federal fetish with standardized testing.


This commitment to reaching as many students as possible requires the sort of relational teaching that the AJC investigation found to be a common quality among great teachers. School is not a soulless, cold, strictly cognitive experience. Rather, school takes place within a network of relationships that help people form bonds with one another and their community institutions. By emphasizing relationships, we are not endorsing an emphasis on unbridled self-esteem. Rather, we see the value of relationships that engender trust through the presentation of challenges and demands that help young people grow into respected adults.


Creating a new writing curriculum that promotes the growth of students into more mature thinkers, readers, and writers is the sort of challenge that great teachers love to take on. We were fortunate to be able to spend a week with such a faculty in July. We look forward to seeing the work that they undertake in the years ahead to take their teaching into new, invigorating, and dynamic places for themselves, their students, and the citizens of Morgan County. We are eternally admiring of the teachers who participated in the workshop and the work they are doing on behalf of their schools and community: Katie Anderson, Dana Buxton, Krystal Cronic, Danielle Bruce, Tara Delaigle, Lisa Hamilton, Heather Hawk, Heather Jackson, Tara Mahoney, Penny Moore, Maryann Slaughter, and Ashley Wegmann.


This workshop was funded by a Teacher Quality Grant awarded by a consortium of sponsors that includes the UGA College of Education, UGA, the Georgia Department of Education, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, and the U.S. Department of Education. All funds for this project were provided by “No Child Left Behind” Title II, Part A, Higher Education: Improving Teacher Quality.