Tips about Teaching

Winning Strategies from Sarah Brown Wessling, the 2010 National Teacher of the Year

  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

Through answers to a series of interview questions, Sarah Brown Wessling shares with Scholastic readers some of her time-tested strategies in the classroom and reflections on the teaching profession.

SCHOLASTIC:

In a quote, now made famous by President Obama’s response, one of your students said there was “no discussion fruitless, no assignment pointless, and not one day was boring” in your classroom. How do you achieve this success and how can other teachers adapt your technique?

SARAH BROWN WESSLING:

The answer may be in a question. I always ask myself, “Why am I teaching this?” If I can’t find an answer that is purposeful and genuine, then I really have to question my instructional decisions. Our students need to know why we make certain choices in the classroom and their learning deserves answers that go beyond “because it’s in the book”; “because I’m grading it”; and “because you’ll need this for college.” I’m compelled as the lead learner in the classroom to create the kinds of experiences in which we all want to be engaged.

SCHOLASTIC:

What is the best advice you have ever received from another teacher?

SARAH BROWN WESSLING:

When I was student teaching, my cooperating teacher, Vicki Goldsmith, also the 2005 Iowa Teacher of the Year, reminded me that we must always know and be able to articulate why we make instructional decisions. She modeled the kind of deliberateness and intentionality that permeates so much of my teaching philosophy and practice.

SCHOLASTIC:

What is your favorite piece of advice to give to a new teacher?

SARAH BROWN WESSLING:

I like to remind beginning teachers that one of the most important “lighthouse moments” to look for is that day when they stop asking themselves what they’re going to do in the classroom and shift to asking what their students are going to learn.

SCHOLASTIC:

What are your top five tips for teachers coming into the business?

SARAH BROWN WESSLING:

1) Know that your work is noble. This is amazingly important and rewarding work. It’s not easy work; in fact, most days it’s messy, just like learning. However, it is an opportunity to see potential in others that they can’t see in themselves and to offer them the chance to realize that potential.

2) Create networks. Even though tradition suggests otherwise, this work is not to be done in isolation. Whether you collaborate with colleagues in your own building, join and actively participate in professional organizations, or forge communities online, resisting isolation will keep you rejuvenated and empowered.

3) Pay attention to the students. No one knows our work better than our students. They will always be honest with us and their feedback is valuable to our continual growth as instructional designers.

4) Create a motivational folder. I keep a folder in my desk drawer where I store the kinds of mementos that keep me motivated. Whether it’s a note from a student, a copy of a poem that fuels me, or a sticky note where I celebrated that Arica finally came to class three days in row – this is the folder I turn to on tough days to feed my teaching soul.

5) Use your philosophy as a lens. Teachers are surrounded with so much “clutter” in their days that it can be difficult to focus on what’s truly important in the classroom. Having a steadfast philosophy we can use as a lens to see through that clutter can keep us mindful of what’s best for kids.

SCHOLASTIC:

What professional books have you read lately and which do you recommend?

SARAH BROWN WESSLING:

I’ve been enjoying some personal reading as of late, but the last few professional books I’ve read are: 21st Century Skills, edited by James Bellanca and Ron Brandt; Brain Rules, by John Medina; and Presentation Zen, by Garr Reynolds. On my nightstand is The Element by Sir Ken Robinson.

Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life was incredibly important to me when I first read it years ago. Likewise, I felt like Bruce Pirie was giving voice to everything I believed about the high school English classroom in his book Reshaping High School English. I also have a special copy of John Dewey’s Democracy and Education.

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