Editorial Note: During this year’s Teacher Appreciation Week, 50 of ED’s senior officials and career staff went “Back to School.” Each staff member was matched with a classroom teacher and spent a full or half day experiencing the life of a teacher. ED’s Dennis Bega shadowed 10th and 11th grade teacher Lisa Clarke in Kent, Wash. Last week, Clarke was named as a 2012/13 Teacher Ambassador Fellow at the Department of Education.
If the country ran on the energy of high school students, we would never run out.
The goal of every teacher is to harness and channel this energy into an enjoyment of learning—but learning in a way that engages students almost before they know it’s happened. Like all great teachers, Lisa Clarke knows how to do this. In her 10th and 11th grade history and social studies classes at Kent-Meridian High School, students thrive. They plug in and contribute to their learning and achievement. This is not magic; it’s motivation – working with kids where they are. Clarke’s students say she “…just gets us. Ms. Clarke relates to us without giving in to us. She makes learning cool and we want to do our best.” Said another, “Ms. Clarke is focused but flexible.”
Clarke’s classrooms are electric with student participation, small group discussions – a constant learning commotion that brings students into the center of the subject and lets them own the material. Students come to the class early and stay until the last possible second when they race off to the next class before the bell—actually the music—stops. Then they come back again. The room is ALWAYS busy with students.
Kent-Meridian is multicultural, multi-lingual, and multi-racial. Each class has a cross section of students from all around the world, bringing with them their accents, biases, learning styles and issues—plenty of issues. One teacher called the school “…a mini UN, with all the possibilities and problems.”
Eighty percent of the school’s 1,937 student body receives free and reduced lunch. It is a challenging environment for teaching and learning to high standards and expectations. Yet here is where Clarke has chosen to be. Described by her colleagues as “the definition of a world class teacher,” Clarke arrives at school by 7:15 am and stays until after all the kids have gone home. And she didn’t start out to be a teacher. Her first love was human rights advocacy. But, in her words “I found myself drawn to teaching when I discovered I wanted to spend more time talking education with the interns than I did doing the policy work.” This second career has led her to teaching posts from one end of the country to the other.
Part of Clarke’s success is that she’s surrounded by caring and committed teaching colleagues all of whom have formed various Content Learning Teams and a robust Professional Learning Community that supports good instruction and the exchange of innovative approaches to teaching and learning.
Shadowing Clarke during Teacher Appreciation Week was a powerful experience. Being a witness to an outstanding example of teaching and seeing those intangibles of instructional excellence reaffirms why this work matters. But students may have said it best when, in a small group, they offered, “It might be Teacher Appreciation Week, but we appreciate Ms. Clarke every day of the year.”
–Dennis Bega is Deputy Director of Regional Communications and Outreach based in ED’s Atlanta Regional Office.