2017-05-01 / Features

Doers and Dreamers

Julia King and Kristen Sanchez

We gathered this year’s Teachers of the Year at the historic Boogersburg School for our photo shoot, but it’s a study in juxtaposition — there’s nothing “old school” about these educators. In a world of increasing technology and information, this year’s honored teachers, like so many in our area, are finding creative ways to connect with their students, whether it’s making history come alive or creating new ways to engage with a classic space. Read on to hear the stories of these “new school” teachers.

Guiding Students to the Real World
“I would have never predicted that I would be teaching high school,” says Jennifer Reed, who has been teaching at State College Area High School for seven years. “But now I’m glad I’m here!” Beginning part-time, there was no expectation for her to stick around for so long, especially seeing as she would be the first physical therapist in the state to be hired to teach at a high school. But thanks to the passion of her students, that’s exactly what happened. “Enrollment gradually increased and that’s what brought me on full time.” Between earning her doctorate, teaching college classes, and now teaching high school, she uses her real-world experience to teach her students how to implement the material — various subjects in the realm of sports medicine — in a way that seems to really get them interested.

When asked how her method of teaching stands out from others, Reed takes a long pause, trying to think from an outside perspective. “I’ll tell you,” chimes in a nearby colleague who Reed says has observed her teaching in the past. “She loves the kids. She has high expectations for the students and teaches them as if they’re experts. So there’s a certain level of respect that she’s not even aware of, but you can see it. And she does it all in one class period.” Reed notes that this statement resonates with her as a mother of two kids who sometimes feel they’re not treated in this way. “I make a big effort to treat them like they’re already in the adult world because we’re asking them to go there.”

But Reed doesn’t just treat her students as if they’re headed for the real world; she goes out of her way to help them do so. Separate from State High’s counseling services, Reed takes the time to help her students apply for colleges and scholarships on an individual basis. “All the one-on-one advising helps me build a relationship with them. And that is not part of my teaching position,” she notes, “but to me it’s critical that as a teacher I do everything I can to get these kids ready beyond what we teach in the classroom.”

Despite the fact that applying to colleges can be the most daunting part of any student’s high school career, Reed notes that this is her favorite time of the year and the one-on-one time is her favorite part of being a teacher.

When all is said and done, Reed admits that the best recognition is the kind that comes directly from her students. “It’s the things that nobody else sees — the handwritten ‘thank you’ notes, Facebook messages, everything. Those are the most meaningful.” It’s obvious that her version of tough love pays off in the end as she recounts the different acknowledgments she’s received — even continuous ones from students who have long since graduated. Because when it comes to that awkward high school age, sometimes all you need is the type of genuine respect that a dedicated teacher like Reed can give — and that’s something you carry with you for the rest of your life as you enter the adult world and beyond.

Dreaming Out Loud in the Library
You only need to take a few steps past the door at Mount Nittany Elementary to notice that the library is the hub of the school. Inside, you’ll find an unconventional version of this normally quiet space, with giggling children playing noisy games and a librarian who does so much more than just organize books. As the coordinator of intramural programs, creator of Makerspace Mondays, and the driving force behind the annual Lit Fest, Dustin Brackbill does it all with a genuine smile on his face.

Makerspace Mondays, one of Brackbill’s many great ideas brought to life, involves inviting students into the library makerspace area after their lunchtime and allowing them to explore and express their ideas as creatively and openly as possible. Every so often Brackbill finds organizations or local authors to come in and talk with the students, but even tables spilling over with Legos or laptops ready for future programmers offer exciting activities into which the kids dive without hesitation. Having only started in September, the makerspace has already grown into a functioning spot for any and all of the children to come together and experience hands-on learning as well as a bit of variation from their everyday schedules.  

The Lit Fest is also a grand event thought up by Brackbill after he attended a literature festival and noticed the children there were receiving the opportunity to learn about authors and literacy. “It was another one of those big ideas that I wasn’t sure would happen, but I wanted to see how it would play out,” he explains. Now occurring in conjunction with Read Across America Day, the seed of an idea for Lit Fest has grown into a fully blossomed event.

When asked about how one person can balance all of these extra activities on top of a mandated curriculum, Brackbill says the variety is what he loves most about his job. “I’m taking something different on all the time,” he says. “I’m willing to make a big dream, dream it out loud, and see if it comes true.” And if some of his big plans don’t work out, he takes it as a learning experience, just as his students and fellow librarians do.

To keep those big dreams coming, Brackbill attends conferences with other librarians across the state, where he becomes reenergized and ready to try to take on new projects. Along with his colleagues, he mentions that his loving family is vital to keeping his world balanced. With so much support in every aspect of his life, it’s no surprise he’s willing to dream so big.

But his students are his biggest inspirations. “We work off of each other; sometimes they’re inspiring me and sometimes I’m trying to inspire them,” he says. That back and forth process is what he calls “student-centered learning,” where the students are the driving force.

Brackbill continually returns to his mantra of “dreaming out loud” as the key to bringing any aspiration to life. “I want libraries and librarians to seem essential or indispensible,” he says. Considering the long list of ideas he has yet to begin, it seems he’ll keep it that way for a long time.

As the kids excitedly shuffle around and jump in to ask him questions, it is obvious that Brackbill is a testament to the fact that some of the best teachers might not work in a classroom.

Coaching Kids Toward Success
Karen McCaffrey likes to bring her coaching style into her classroom. “I am loud and I am passionate, especially in math. I always tell them, ‘Don’t let that problem beat you.’ It’s almost like a competition and I make them believe that they can do it.”

McCaffrey has been teaching sixth grade at Penns Valley Intermediate School for 25 years — and is also the Penns Valley Area varsity girls basketball coach. Despite her original plan to become a primary school teacher, she thinks sixth grade is the best year ever. “A couple of years ago we had teachers reassigned to different grades and I wrote a persuasive letter to our superintendent as to why I wanted to stay in sixth,” she says.

As a teacher of all subjects, McCaffrey credits the progressiveness of Penns Valley for influencing her teaching style. “When I started I thought content was the most important, and now you can find content on the internet anytime you want,” she explains. “I think some of the most important things that we’re teaching now is how to be a problem solver.” Part of Penns Valley’s progressive teaching style includes giving students access to today’s latest technology by equipping them with iPads and laptops. “Anytime during the day if there’s a word or fact they don’t know, they can look it up. We use technology now without even thinking about it.”

McCaffrey, who recorded her 300th win as the varsity basketball coach this year, has a daily goal of building her students’ confidence, which she applies in every aspect of the school day. “This job is so important because we’ve got kids from so many different backgrounds,” she explains. “We have to try and reach every kid in whatever way we can. Whenever you think, ‘Should I take that extra step?’ always try to, because if it’s one thing I did or one thing I said hopefully that helps.”

McCaffrey is always looking for ways to make learning fun and exciting for her students and likes to relate her lessons back to everyday experiences. “I once had a colleague of mine say to me after a lesson, ‘Did you like teaching that? Because if you didn’t enjoy teaching it, then they didn’t enjoy learning it.’” Taking those words of advice, McCaffrey enjoys teaching fun, hands-on lessons such as using engineering skills to build the tallest tower out of spaghetti, marshmallows and tape or designing balsa wood bridges to hold the most weight.

Another technique that McCaffrey has found helpful in engaging her students and helping them learn material is through song. “I play the piano and I love music so in math if they have to learn something difficult, I’ll find a video or song to help them.” McCaffrey explains “The Circle Song” is the one her students know best, which became evident when she could hear students humming the melody during a recent exam.

Further proving that teaching and coaching go hand in hand, McCaffrey likes to use a phrase from a former basketball coach at Penns Valley. “We tell them to check their cool card at the door,” she says. “When you come in here you’re going to try new things and walk out of your comfort zone.”

While she encourages her students to always push their boundaries, McCaffrey also sees listening as one of the best qualities that a teacher can have. “Sometimes teachers get caught up in a lot of talking and they don’t do enough listening, and kids have to know that there’s mutual respect.”

Respect is not something that McCaffrey is lacking. Using the word “we” more than “I,” she humbly credits the success she has had as a teacher to the team of teachers and administrators she has around her.

After 25 years as an educator, McCaffrey’s passion for teaching remains as strong as ever. “People think I’m crazy, but there is never a day that I dread coming to school. And basketball season is just like Christmas.”

Meeting Students in the Middle
Despite his natural talent for engaging young minds, John Alexander did not originally set out to become a teacher. “My mother is a college professor in education and always said I would be a good teacher,” he says. “But of course as a kid you never want to do what your mom says, so I went into business instead.”

After working as a tech analyst for several years, Alexander experienced a change of heart. “It was 2 o’clock on a Saturday, I was installing software, my first daughter had just been born, and I said to myself, ‘This is not where my heart is. I can do this but it doesn’t feel right; I want to change things up.’” After his wife, who is a professor of education, was hired at Penn State, Alexander decided to go back to school to pursue teaching.

Now in his eleventh year, it seems Alexander has mastered the art of middle school education. Currently at Our Lady of Victory Catholic Middle School teaching social studies, he uses a hands-on and investigative approach to the curriculum. “Typically three days out of the week I give standard classroom-style instruction, but on Mondays and Fridays I try to go more off book, things that aren’t really testable.” Reader’s theaters, current events and “Mysteries in History,” in which students discuss unsolved events, are just a few of the ways that Alexander gets students thinking.

When asked what his teaching philosophy is, he cited lyrics from The Who: “I got values, and I don’t know why.” “I have kids in this classroom who have all these ideas and they’ve heard and seen things, but they don’t really understand the background behind it,” Alexander explains. “I try to present the background behind everything.”

So how does a teacher keep a room full of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders engaged and excited to learn? “I really try to elicit an emotional reaction from them,” he says. Describing one of his favorite lessons, covering the women’s suffrage movement: “I come to class that day with a fake letter from the school, which basically says that they’ve decided to go to a more traditional form of education.” The letter declares that there will no longer be sports for females at OLV, nor will girls be taught math or science. “As a father of two girls, I get very into it,” he says. “It’s almost cruel in a way, but the girls will start to feel very upset about it, and in the last 10 minutes I’ll tell them that it was all a joke and we follow it up with a discussion.”

Another favorite lesson of his is one for which he built cardboard shields for all of his students and took them outside to better understand ancient Greek battle tactics. “They really get into it and the feeling of actually being in there teaches them more than just the books and the facts,” he says. These types of hands-on and emotional lessons help to engage students’ interest and make them excited to come to school each day.

Being a father to his two daughters has helped Alexander become a better teacher, giving him the ability to better understand where his students are coming from. “What makes a great teacher is a willingness to listen to students, to hear what they’re saying, and what their experiences are and to not judge them based on those things but to engage them.”

Relating to his students is not something that this self-described nerd who is known for making Star Wars references seems to have any difficulty doing. “I am a kid at heart. I am very willing and open to exposing my nerdiness to my students,” he says. “I show them that I am a human being, and I make mistakes.”

Being selected as one of t Teachers of the Year has only helped to reaffirm Alexander that his teaching style is both inspiring and effective. “Hearing that I became one of the teachers of the year helps me validate that I am a good teacher. I have done a good job, which means a lot to me,” he says. “And my mother was right the whole time.” •SCM

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