There’s something powerful happening in our area schools — our teachers are some of the most passionate, hard-working, caring educators around. From preschool to high school, our readers told us about the amazing things our teachers do every day. So many teachers are heroes to their students, and we’re thrilled to feature four of them in our annual Teachers of the Year story. With or without capes, they’re making a difference and changing lives — and that’s what’s really super.
In Room 130 in the State College Area High School North Building, students are buzzing around lab tables prepping for their experiment — to see how much water is contained in a sample of blue copper sulfate crystals.
“I don’t want to see any phones!” announces Mary Hershey. “We have a clock right there on the wall.”
The teenagers are happy to put away their devices, probably because they get to experiment with fire.
“Anything colorful, with explosions, they love it,” says Hershey, a high school chemistry teacher for 28 years — all of them at State High. “If you could do lab every day, they would love it… Part of our job is teaching them how to think things through, and that comes with questioning, it comes with how you teach things. The laboratory component is enormous.”
As students fire up their Bunsen burners, Hershey says people always ask her what has changed over the nearly three decades she’s been teaching. “Well, things do change. The media has changed. Their environment has changed, but they’re still ultimately really nice kids, and they want to learn things. They have ambitions and interests. Kids are still really nice to be with.”
Hershey, who worked as a medical technologist before she had her three sons and decided to get a teaching degree, says chemistry is exciting for high schoolers in part because of lab but also because it’s a little abstract. “I think part of it is it’s a little mysterious. Kids can be amazed by the things that happen in lab, so it seems a little magical to them. I like them having that wonder and that joy.”
So even if her students don’t want to go into science as a career, Hershey knows she has something to teach them.
“In general I’d like all my students to learn how to organize their world, whether it’s organize what their assignments are, organize the data they’ve collected, organize how they’re going to prepare for a test,” she says. “Whatever it is they’re going to do in life, I think that chemistry gives them an opportunity to be patient and thoughtful about what they’re doing.”
“Patient” and “thoughtful” are also good words to describe Hershey, who fosters personal relationships with all of her students. “I make it a point to greet every child who comes through my door every day. If they’ve had a softball game the day before, if they’ve been away on a debate club trip, I try to pay attention to that and say something personal to that child about that effort.”
It’s easy to see what she’ll miss the most when she retires this year. “I will miss the kids, and I will miss my colleagues — especially my science colleagues. We are very, very close. We are appreciative and respectful of all our abilities.”
But Hershey is looking forward to spending time with her grandchildren and increasing her volunteer efforts. “I love what I do,” she says. “I’ll be doing this in other ways in my volunteer work and other things I do outside of school.” She says she likes running into former students, who often thank her for teaching them chemistry.
“Somewhere along the line you have to say, ‘I did OK,’ and that’s when I probably know I’m doing OK, when kids comes back and say thanks. That’s the gratifying part.”
Film a documentary, design a working power plant, complete an in-depth research project, build a recumbent bicycle — these might seem like full-time jobs, but for Mark Toci’s class at Centre Learning Community Charter School, it’s just another day at school.
Founded in 1998 by Toci and Kyle Peck, CLC is a project-based, technology-supported middle school serving grades five to eight. That means that instead of shorter classes on individual subjects like science, art or social studies, students complete larger projects that encompass multiple disciplines.
“Sometimes you ask our kids, ‘What did you do in science today?’ They say, ‘Well, we didn’t have science.’ But we did a research project this year that was nothing but science,” says Toci.
Toci’s class of seventh and eighth graders recently completed a documentary film project, for which they conducted interviews, wrote scripts, edited video, and even designed a promotional poster.
“You can’t do these kinds of projects unless you have time,” says Toci, and that time comes from having the same group of students all day for two years.
“You create such a relationship with the kids and their parents,” he says. “They get to know you. Teaching is so much about relationships. It’s not just a matter of disseminating information and helping kids gather a set of skills; it’s also about helping them develop a set of attributes, everything from courage to self-confidence.”
It’s that kind of focus that makes middle school the perfect age for Toci’s style. “Much of who you are, many of your habits, your intrinsic motivations, comes about in these years, the middle school years,” he says.
In addition to more than 25 years of teaching experience, Toci also has a doctorate in instructional systems. “My focus was systemic change, looking at how do you change a system — public education — that’s so ingrained?” he says. “Instructional design people are really interested in applying what science has told us about how the brain works to create models of learning.”
Part of Toci’s model is a system that allows for all types of learners and ability levels, and it’s the project-based curriculum that allows Toci and his assistant teacher Raisa Gray to individualize instruction for each student. “You’re having everybody write, but you may have very different expectations,” Toci says. “You have to meet everybody where they are and create an environment that will help everybody get to where they need to be.”
That environment includes about 100 students and about a dozen staff members, creating a 1:10 student-to-teacher ratio at the school. But that doesn’t mean there’s more formalized instruction — if anything, Toci’s class resembles less formal college seminars.
Students call Toci “Mark” and sit at big, round tables. Their desks seem almost secondary, but that’s where each student has a school-provided laptop — part of the “technology-supported” bit in the school’s description.
“They’re using technology in the way that everybody uses technology,” Toci says. “It’s not saying, ‘Today we’re going to learn how to use Excel.’” Instead, they used Excel to organize and analyze data from a research project — the same way it’s used in the real world.
Small classes, individualized learning and ample time to explore projects are all part of Toci’s greater vision. “My number one goal for the students is for them to be happy, to be people who can contribute and do something with their lives and somehow live a life that is worth living.”
The Never-Ending Story
Mary Robert knows the secret to teaching: Never stop learning.
“I tell my students all the time that I’m a lifelong learner myself,” she says. “We’re always on a journey of learning. No matter how old we are, there are always things we can learn and do differently.”
A State College native, the second-grade Radio Park Elementary School teacher has always had her sights set on the long term.
“I’m one of those people who has always known they wanted to be a teacher,” she says. “Every day I love teaching more than I did the day before, even after 24 years.”
Every year is different and comes with new challenges, but Robert says each incoming second-grade class is a new learning opportunity. Often that’s due to a new group of students with different personalities, but it’s also about her changing curriculum. “When I first started, I loved teaching math and seeing the way kids’ minds worked with numbers,” Robert says. “But lately, I’ve been doing a lot of research into how children read and think critically.”
This year especially, Robert says many of her students have brought in books from home to share with their peers, a practice she believes is essential for building a community of readers and becoming a better teacher herself.
Although a lot of the homework Robert assigns herself these days involves studying up on how children grow as readers, she says most of what she’s learned about teaching she’s learned from the students themselves.
“One year, one of my students was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes in November of her second-grade year,” she says. “I took it as a learning opportunity for the class, and we learned together what she was going through. It was amazing to see them come together and really support the little girl and make her feel this different thing that was happening in her life was OK.”
In an effort to expand her students’ learning experience beyond the classroom, Robert organized a Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation walk at the school, sold T-shirts as a fundraiser, and encouraged
kids to raise money for diabetes research at home.
“They’re only 7 or 8 years old,” she says, “but it was just so cool for the second-graders to see that they could make a difference.”
After graduating from Penn State with a teaching degree and working as a substitute for two years, Robert jumped on a position teaching second grade at Radio Park, and aside from a brief stint teaching sixth grade her second year on the job, she’s never looked back.
“Every teacher will probably tell you the same thing, but I think second is the best grade ever,” she says. “They come with a curiosity and an eagerness to learn. Every day is new and different, but that’s what makes this job so wonderful.”
Robert says one of the most important parts of her job is making sure each child feels loved and cared for every day they walk through her door, and says her favorite part of the job is seeing how her students grow after they leave.
“I think that’s what makes me the teacher that I am,” Robert says. “I’m always looking for new things to do and better ways of working with children. Being good at what you do is never being satisfied with where you are.”
The Building Blocks of Character
During her junior year of high school, after a childhood spent struggling through school — especially when it came to reading — Lisa Harrington realized she had dyslexia. Harrington remembers wanting to learn but feeling embarrassed and frustrated when she couldn’t quite keep up with her peers, two feelings she has since strived to erase from her kindergarten classroom in her years as a teacher at Ferguson Township Elementary.
“Originally I went into teaching because I wanted to provide an environment for kids to feel safe, where they can be the level they are and be proud of themselves,” Harrington says. “I wanted to teach in a way where academics wasn’t the full picture, but teach a lot of character, too.”
After graduating from Penn State in 1989, Harrington taught upper-level elementary in Altoona — she laughs to think she taught fifth grade at one point now that she’s been teaching kindergarten for six years — but decided to take time off to be a stay-at-home mom while her children were growing up.
“During those years, I got a really good picture of what it looks like to be a parent on the outside looking in,” Harrington says. “I sat through 48 parent-teacher conferences on the other side of this desk.”
Harrington worried that, after 14 years out of the classroom, no school would ever let her teach again. But eventually she found work again as a substitute at Ferguson, where her children had started attending school, and worked her way up in the learning support department there as a response to intervention and instruction teacher (RTII).
“I just clicked in there because I understood why they struggled, and I understood the kind of reaction they would want someone to have when they struggled,” Harrington says. “It was exhilarating knowing I could help a child not go through that embarrassment.”
She worked with a class of 15 kindergarteners who were at risk of falling behind in their reading skills. Harrington says she took the job very seriously, working with students until the end of the school day even though it was only a half-day job.
“I felt very good at the end of that year that all those kindergarteners were readers,” she says.
She was able to start up her full-time career again as a kindergarten teacher when a position opened after the school’s recent remodel.
“In kindergarten, you’re setting the groundwork,” she says. “You’re setting the foundation for the future of learning that comes, and you’re building those really important reading skills for kids to get to the next level.”
Harrington says that, although she tries never to keep her lesson plans the same from year to year, her character-building program is one she’ll never change. As a parent, Harrington believed it was important for her kids to practice certain values. As a teacher, she tries to incorporate lessons in enthusiasm, perseverance and respectfulness by having students practice a different attribute each month and making a big deal about it when a student demonstrates one of the characteristics in the classroom, she says.
“I will never be the same from year to year because I’ve only really scratched the surface of what there is to know about teaching,” Harrington says. “But for a person to really be successful, it’s not about your IQ, it’s not about your test scores. Those things are important, but that’s not what’s going to make you successful — it’s building character.” •SCM