How Great Teachers Are Thinking Outside the Classroom to Help Students Learn
By Bob Gogel, the CEO of WorldStrides, an educational travel and experiential-learning organization
Teacher Appreciation Week provides an opportunity for all of us to pause and think about the many ways that educators have made, and continue to make, important contributions to our learning and to our lives.
Today's teachers are tasked with providing greater and more personalized attention to students in ever-larger classes, with fewer resources. Their classrooms are increasingly diverse, but their responsibilities remain the same: to ensure that all students have access to the learning opportunities that will help them be successful as students and throughout their lives.
This Teacher Appreciation Week, we ought to do more than just appreciate teachers. We should make an effort to understand what obstacles they face—and the creative ways that some teachers are approaching the work of meeting the needs of every student in their class. A teacher's classroom is filled with a broad range of skills, interests, and prior knowledge. Their work is not just about presenting information to the typical students in an interesting way; it's about understanding and trying to meet many different needs at once so that all students have a chance to succeed. The best teachers go beyond the traditional framework of schooling to find and deploy all kinds of resources in creative ways to reach this goal.
Dedicated teachers think outside of traditional classroom walls, books, computers, and curriculum. They leverage experiences, whether in or out of school, to build knowledge and skills—not to mention confidence. They connect students with the community and the larger world in ways that open their eyes to the learning opportunities around them. Through persistence and ingenuity, great teachers close the gap between what their classroom provides and what their students need. Over the past four years, we've recognized teachers who, through persistence and ingenuity, are closing the gap between the opportunities available within a traditional classroom and the vast potential for learning that can occur when great teachers think beyond school walls.
Among them this year is Holly Grefe, who has taught choir in Lafayette, La., for 24 years. Ms. Grefe does more than teach her students how to sing. Parents say they have seen their children, through Ms. Grefe's teaching, transform from self-conscious 9th graders to confident performers—and young adults—beaming with purpose. Students in Chelsea Roidt's Latin class, in Lancaster, Ohio, tell a similar story. Ms. Roidt, her students say, goes beyond teaching a language, incorporating life lessons into her class that help students better grasp what they're learning while also better preparing them for life after graduation.
Lynn Bourinaris, a culinary educator at New Jersey's Sussex County Technical School, works to provide her students with a taste of the world that exists beyond the walls of their high school. Ms. Bourinaris frequently takes her students on trips to experience the culinary history and culture of Europe. Back home, she incorporates real-world training and experiences into her lessons, preparing her students to pursue their careers, their culinary passions, or both.
And then there is Gina Englund of Mobile, Ala. For years, Ms. Englund worked to support students with varied learning needs as they struggled in a traditional school setting. Each year, students entered her classroom well below grade level. Many of these students had dyslexia and other learning difficulties. She watched as, despite her best efforts, those struggling 1st graders left her classroom and continued to struggle through middle school and high school. Many did not make it to graduation. Ms. Englund became convinced that these students required a different kind of learning environment if they were to succeed. She decided to found Bright Beginnings, a new kind of school that helps students with dyslexia access their full potential and overcome the many learning barriers often present in a traditional classroom. Today, she provides more than 40 students with the environment they need to become confident, engaged learners.
These stories surround us. Educators deserve our gratitude for their work helping students grow not just as Latin learners, singers, or 1st graders, but as humans. At a time when the number of people applying to open teaching positions is sharply declining, and when more than 40 percent of new teachers are leaving the profession within five years, these teachers serve as an inspiration. Their tenacity, creativity, and commitment to going above and beyond traditional teaching provides a valuable lesson to teachers who—despite the overwhelming demands of their job—are still seeking new ways to design better learning experiences for their students.
Let us keep celebrating these teachers. And let's keep telling their stories, not only during Teacher Appreciation Week, but all year-round.