Great teacher series: The energy and creativity of Grady High School's Dave Winter | www.ajc.com
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Great teacher series: The energy and creativity of Grady High School's Dave Winter

Grady teacher and kids

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University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinsky continues his Great Georgia Teacher series today with a profile of Dave Winter of Atlanta's Grady High School.

By Peter Smagorinsky

Dave Winter is one of the smartest, most thoughtful teachers around. If I could teach next door to Dave, nothing could make me leave the profession,” Dr. Mary Lynn Huie, Literacy Trainer, Georgia Department of Education

 “He knows what he is doing. He is really funny too! I'll definitely miss him, now that I'm in college. He's the best Southerner adviser ever. . . . Win's the man. All you have to do is pay attention, and I promise that you will have a blast in his class. . . . Winter rules!! do your work, pay attention, and you will have a blast! . . . Winter is the shizz. Do your work and pay attention or you'll fall behind. He knows his stuff, and can give good advice on how to take the AP test. Take Notes.”  Student comments at ratemyteachers.com

Meet Dave Winter, a great teacher for the state of Georgia. Dave is the kind of teacher that every school needs: someone who not only does exceptional work in the classroom, but works beyond the bell to serve his students, school, and community in ways that make each more than the sum of its parts. When kids take the time to enter 4-5 star ratings at ratemyteachers.com, the place where they often go to bash their bedeviling instructors, you know that the object of their appreciation is, as one admirer so eloquently stated, “the shizz.” The AJC’s family values prevent me from explaining this term’s etymology, but my sources assure me that it’s a good thing, meaning something that is above the standards; the best.

 Dave is the kind of great Georgia teacher who helps to make a school a community, a factor rarely mentioned when teacher evaluation systems are proposed based on associations between particular students’ test scores and specific teachers. Teaching and learning involve more than a collection of one-to-one correspondences. As Dave’s career demonstrates so well, it includes orchestrating a host of individual personalities and experiences into groups whose members feel a sense of belonging and community.

 If you believe in school spirit, then you might appreciate the teachers who help make school a place that kids want to be a part of and look back on afterward with warmth and appreciation for the channels of meaningful activity it provided to help them find their pathways in life. School activities like the student publications that Dave oversees at Grady High often provide the sort of positive social updraft that enables kids to feel a sense of belonging and purpose. That feeling of affiliation engages them with the institution of school beyond what simply attending a series of classes can allow for, and often leads them to engage with school in ways they might not otherwise care to do.

 Dave himself is quite an achiever. He graduated from the University of Texas-Austin in 1990, getting his degree through UT’s Plan II Honors Program. This multi-perspective program focuses on problem solving, critical and analytical skills, and writing, and culminates with a thesis requirement. As a high-end student in an exclusive academic track, Dave is far more like most teachers I know than the stereotype of the low-GPA underachievers that is often anecdotally depicted as the norm for teachers. 

 He didn’t stop there, earning a master’s degree in history at Georgia State in 2001 and becoming certified to teach gifted students along with the subjects of behavioral science, economics, English, history, and political science. He’s also had a long involvement with the Kennesaw Mountain Writing Project, has been the associate director of the Georgia Making American Literatures Institute, and is among the Project Directors for the Georgia Teacher Leaders for the Keeping and Creating American Communities project at Kennesaw State University. Through this association, Dave co-edited an anthology of lessons about community-based instruction, "Writing Our Communities," with Kennesaw English professor Sarah Robbins that was published by the National Council of Teachers of English in 2005.

 Dave Winter’s teaching journey is varied and distinguished. After college he began teaching at Mayfair High School in Lakewood, Calif., before moving to Wheeler High in Cobb County, where he taught journalism and English for nine years. Dave then moved to his current professional home, Grady High School in Atlanta. He was voted the Wheeler Teacher of the Year just before his departure, has been recognized twice as a S.T.A.R. Teacher, was inducted into the Wheeler High School Hall of Fame toward the end of his tenure there, and perhaps most remarkably, was admitted to the Mayfair High School Faculty No. 1 Club in his only year on staff.

Like a lot of teachers, Dave holds tutorial hours during lunches and by appointment. But it’s his work as the advisor to student publications that really makes Dave a special member of his school community. Grady High School, founded in 1924 as Boys High, was renamed after Henry Woodfin Grady, who advocated as a journalist for a "New South" after the Civil War. Grady's emphases on communication skills and journalistic integrity require a faculty advisor for student publications of tremendous dedication, ability, and energy.

 In that capacity, Dave is indeed the shizz. He is a vital member of the National and Georgia National Scholastic Press Associations, the latter of which has conferred on him its Adviser of the Year and Career Service Awards. He’s also been named the Joseph B. Whitehead Educator of Distinction Award and the Teacher of the Year Award from the Georgia Association of Journalism Advisers.

 Dave’s shizziness has been recognized and supported by the Atlanta Public Schools and the Grady administration, who have created a job-sharing arrangement for Dave so that he can dedicate more time to the student publications. As might be expected of a school named after one of the state’s most distinguished journalists, Grady emphasizes student writing, and Dave is the latest of a series of faculty members who have devoted themselves to teaching students the many skills that go into producing outstanding publications. He credits his predecessor Riki Bolster for laying the foundation for the current programs, and views himself as extending and building on the legacy she established. He’s also quick to praise the work of Debra Hartsfield and his job-share partner Kate Carter, who have served in advisory roles for the publications during his time at Grady.

Nexus is among the extensions that have been undertaken on Dave’s watch. Dave initially proposed the idea of creating a features magazine as a companion to The Southerner, but had trouble fitting the assignment in with his schedule. Then, in his words, “The students ran with the idea of the magazine on their own time.  They created a template for the proposed Nexus magazine on their own and pitched it to me and to the members of the Southerner newspaper staff,” who supported the initiative and took on the workload of producing it as a supplement when Dave’s schedule wouldn’t accommodate it for a separate class. In particular, he credits founding student editors Micah Weiss and Harrison Martin for getting Nexus off the ground.

 Take a look  at the outstanding work his kids are doing. Southerner editor Isabelle Taft was named the 2013 Georgia Champion Journalist, the highest honor given to a senior scholastic journalist, and she’s one of many of Dave’s students who have won this award, including eight at Grady and four at Wheeler. Isabelle’s staff investigated such nettlesome stories as Occupy Atlanta, the APS cheating scandal, the No Child Left Behind legislation and implementation, local crime stories, stories about budget cuts and programming decisions that adversely affect kids, and other news that school publications rarely take on.

Surely Isabelle is a talented young woman, but just as surely Dave and Kate have provided the structure and support for Isabelle and her colleagues to make the most of their enormous potential, as their many awards indicate.

Dave said, following the 2004 renovation of Grady HS, “The Grady community has flourished in their new environment. We love being part of the Midtown community, and we just want to show the public our new home.” 

The language of community and the idea that school serves as the home to teachers and students is among the qualities that great teachers bring to their work. His contributions to the Grady community go well beyond the sorts of superficial indicators favored by today’s policymakers and their focus on single-score gauges of individual teachers’ effects on individual students.

Rather, Dave is the kind of teacher who elevates the whole institution by making school a secure and stimulating place that people call home. That critical contribution gets little attention in our current policy debates, and the policies are much the poorer for the oversight.