AFT Teachers Semifinalists
Teacher, Ron Brown Middle School, Washington, D.C.
Washington Teachers’ Union, Local 6
Tiffany Johnson wants her students to feel at home in her classroom. In a school where 100 percent of the students get free and reduced lunch, where most live in housing projects in crime-ridden neighborhoods, her students are additionally challenged by special needs. By making school a comfortable, inviting place, she helps them open up to learning. Johnson, a member of the Washington Teachers’ Union and a seventh-grade special education teacher at Ron Brown Middle School in Washington, D.C., frequently reaches into her own pocket for uniforms, bus fare and extra snacks for hungry students. She distributes coats if she notices a child comes in without one; she’ll hand out personal items like lotion and deodorant. And she’s thrown birthday parties for children who have never had one before. She takes the students on field trips, buys their favorite movies for them, and gets them books from the local school library, “just to spark their interest. I let them know that school is the safest place they can be,” she says. And they respond. One boy was notorious for missing school in sixth grade, and, says Johnson, when he did come he didn’t feel successful. Since he landed in Johnson’s class, he comes to school every day, participates in class, and sacrifices his lunch breaks at her lunchtime math program, says Johnson, “so he can get more knowledge.” Another student, who had chalked up multiple suspensions and been arrested for violent behavior with teachers, has had no suspensions in Johnson’s class. Her secret? “It’s just creating an environment where they feel successful, where they feel loved, where it’s okay to be a smart person.”
“Ms. Johnson manages to daily motivate these students to see beyond their personal issues and to strive for educational excellence,” says her teacher colleague, Marilyn Mapp. “She is a modern-day Good Samaritan, daily providing the counseling, nurturing and discipline that our youths so desperately need.” Johnson, who has twice been named D.C.’s Ward 7 Teacher of the Year and a “highly qualified” teacher for D.C. Public Schools, shares her techniques with colleagues, informally advising them to hone the “art” of teaching. And she runs parenting workshops to help parents cope with special needs children. “It takes a village to raise a child as well as educate a child,” says Johnson. In her “village,” she is an inspiring leader.
Teacher, Schoharie High School, Schoharie, N.Y.
Schoharie Teachers Association, Local 2993
When the tiny town of Schoharie, N.Y., was ravaged by floods during Hurricane Irene, “It was a nightmare,” remembers resident Martin Messner, president of the Schoharie Teachers Association. “I can’t even describe how devastating the flood was.” An oil spill prevented travel and left the stench of diesel that lasted for days; there was no power, and some homes had water through both their first and second stories. Although his own home was safe on a hill, neighbors and colleagues suffered severe damage. He went to work trying to help them clean up, ripping out soaked floors and walls, and hauling furniture to the curb. As he struggled through a retired member’s home, where four feet of water had “ruined everything,” he realized he needed reinforcements. “I started calling other teachers from my union,” he says. Messner wound up organizing an all-out effort that eventually involved hundreds of volunteers, including United Federation of Teachers president and AFT vice president Michael Mulgrew and a busload of United Federation of Teachers members. “We were working eight, nine hours a day in a volunteer effort,” rebuilding homes destroyed by the storm, says Messner. When school resumed (the building had been used as an emergency shelter), they worked after class and on weekends.
When volunteers began to go home, the STA began an insulation program. The 100-member local contributed $10,000 and raised another $30,000; their goal was to insulate 40 homes, and they wound up insulating 110 homes, churches and Main Street businesses, coordinating with 300 volunteers and more than 100 different organizations. After a second round of projects was completed, the local—with enormous input from other organizations and locals, says Messner—had insulated about 160 homes, at a cost of some $80,000. Messner, who teaches a full six periods of health and physical education at Schoharie High School, typically ends the day with four or five hours on union business, volunteering and reaching out to the community after school. But the credit for helping clean up Schoharie, he says, belongs not to him but to the many volunteers and donors who made the work possible. “Everything we’ve done here in Schoharie has been a team effort,” he says. “It’s about the movement. It’s about helping our friends and neighbors.”
And the community is appreciative. Even neighbors who had been critical of teachers unions have warmed to the group. “The union is an integral part of the community,” says Messner.
Teacher, Niles West High School, Skokie, Ill.
North Suburban Teachers Union, Local 1274
Leslie Natzke never planned on becoming a teacher, but working with the Peace Corp in Niger, she wound up with 50 children to teach. Nearly all of them were boys. “Of course it struck me,” she says. Where were the girls? They were at home, cooking, taking care of siblings and marrying so young that school was out of the question. Natzke began reaching out to the girls and never stopped. Now, through Expanding Lives (www.expandinglives.org), which she founded in 2008, Natzke brings six rural West African girls to the Chicago area each summer for training in English, computers, leadership, health and vocations. The girls return to Africa, finish high school and become role models, often helping pull their families out of poverty.
Natzke, a member of the Illinois Federation of Teachers/AFT Local 1274, teaches English language learners and beginning French at Niles West High School in Skokie, Ill. Her students join the African girls in a retreat, broadening their own understanding of the world. “They never thought they had things in common with people from that big of a cultural divide,” says Natzke. “They laugh at the same things, they find the same jokes funny.” One American girl, with challenges of her own, recently contacted Natzke to tell her she’d chosen a college: “I think about what I have to overcome and what they have to overcome, and I know I can do this,” she said.
Natzke is also an inspiration to colleagues. She is interesting, energetic and “always creative with her lesson planning,” says Steve Grossman, who, after working with her years ago at a different school, won praise from Niles West teachers for suggesting she join him there. To reach students in her own classroom, many of whom are refugees, Natzke recruits English-speaking students to tutor them, and takes them to the city to learn to use public transportation—a skill they can pass on to their families. Like the African girls, they are often convinced they’ll never succeed in school, but Natzke finds joy in turning them around: “I just love seeing people come in and think they can’t do something or think something is beyond them—and four months later they’re having a conversation [in English]. If you have the right people in place and give them the right tools, we as human beings can do amazing things.”
Teacher, Wharton K-8 Dual Language Academy, Houston, Texas
Houston Federation of Teachers, Local 2415
When he was five years old, Miguel Orozco was already marching for the teachers union—the one his mother belonged to in Mexico, where he grew up. Now a proud board member of the Houston Federation of Teachers, his loyalty to the union is matched only by his dedication to his students. Orozco brings an infectious enthusiasm to his work, which includes an overriding commitment to celebrating diversity. His third-grade classroom at the Wharton K-8 Dual Language Academy is filled with “realia,” or “the real thing,” objects that bring to life the broad array of ethnicities among his students. He varies the objects—which he buys with his own money—according to the children in the class. “Last year it was Vietnam,” he says. “This year we made a big deal for Chinese New Year, with the Chinese dragon and the [traditional] broom to clean the homes.” He relates the objects to lessons—an Indonesian rainstick might be used to demonstrate color, shape and volume, for example. Along with Chinese New Year came lessons on the calendar and birth years that correspond to various animals. Children often find the flags of their countries hanging from the classroom wall. Surrounding students with familiar objects, says Orozco, makes them more comfortable in class. “I want them to feel at home.”
And it works. One Mandarin Chinese boy, who was quiet at the beginning of the year, now takes off his shoes when he comes to class, just as he would at home, and helps his classmates learn to use chopsticks. Outside the classroom, Orozco is a creative advocate for education. He won a grant that allows his students to work with scientists from SACNAS, a society of scientists dedicated to fostering the success of Hispanic, Chicano and Native American scientists. He is an advocate for single parents, counseling them on how best to help their students excel. As a member of the Houston Independent School District Advisory Committee, he stands up for teachers’ rights and fights against the Michelle Rhee-inspired policies favored in Texas. He has also been working for gender-neutral language in parent correspondence (conventional Spanish would address all parents as “padres,” literally “fathers.”). Orozco, who is gay, is particularly sensitive to gender language, and is a strong proponent of laws protecting people from discrimination based on sexual orientation—laws that only recently passed in Texas, with help from the union.
Teacher, Dowling Urban Environmental School, Minneapolis, Minn.
Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, Local 59
When Lee Schwanke first encountered students with special needs, he wasn’t sure how to reach them. There he was, with his degree in art education, in his own classroom, but when the wheelchairs rolled in and he met students with a range of disabilities, he says he felt “clueless.” So he invited other educators at his school, which specializes in teaching students with a range of disabilities from mild to profound, to help him. “I have never seen an art teacher that listens to the extended staff and incorporates all of the things we ask to make art experiences meaningful and necessary for exceptional children,” says Mary Tryhus, an early childhood special education teacher at the school. “He knew that the best way to understand these students’ individual needs was to develop a relationship with the support staff.”
Input from occupational therapists, speech clinicians and others has helped “Mr. Lee” find tools to effectively engage all the students in his classroom. Now, a child whose cerebral palsy prevents him from grasping small objects uses a wire attached to his arm to hold a paint brush. Another can’t manipulate a slender paint brush, so she uses the broader-handled shaving brush instead. A child who cannot speak uses a switch with prerecorded responses to respond to questions and prompts during class. “Johnny, help me read,” Schwanke might say, and Johnny takes a turn “reading” by flipping a switch to a prerecorded reading, in the voice of his teacher or another student. “The activity is something that Johnny finds stimulating, just interacting with other children,” says Schwanke. “Johnny wants to do that, regardless of how severely disabled he is, that’s motivating for him, that helps him to reach his goals.” The approach benefits children without disabilities as well, says Schwanke. Their interaction—showing “Johnny” their work, holding his hand, talking to him—feels natural, and their increased appreciation of their own abilities makes them work harder.
Schwanke, who is certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, shares his inclusion techniques at the University of Minnesota, where he teaches a graduate-level summer class on adapting, augmenting and altering art curriculum for special needs students. His latest project is to help turn the familiar “STEM” acronym, which has garnered support for advances in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, into “STEAM,” so it includes art. He hopes to incorporate art into the summer school STEM curriculum this year.