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Teacher of the Year: Education ‘must be learner-centered’

President Obama honors the 2010 National Teacher of the Year, Sarah Brown Wessling.
President Obama honors the 2010 National Teacher of the Year, Sarah Brown Wessling.

Facebook and digital video are among the many technology-based tools that Sarah Brown Wessling uses to engage her students—but just as important as that, it was her passion for helping every child succeed and her belief that instruction should be “learner-centered” that led to her selection as the 2010 National Teacher of the Year.

Wessling, a high school English teacher from Iowa, was recognized by President Barack Obama as the nation’s top teacher in an April 29 ceremony in the White House Rose Garden.

“Whether teaching basic writing to at-risk freshmen, or literary theory to Advanced Placement seniors, Sarah writes: ‘I see a story in every learner, unique and yearning to be read.’ That’s why she creates individualized podcasts for each student with extensive feedback on their papers, prompting one parent to report that his own writing had improved just by listening to Sarah’s comments to his daughter,” the president said.

“Her students don’t just write five-paragraph essays, but they write songs, public service announcements, film story boards, even grant proposals for their own not-for-profit organizations,” he said, adding that one of Wessling’s students reported that learning in her classroom was never boring.

“I’m not sure I could have said that when I was in school,” said Obama.

Wessling teaches 10th- through 12th-graders at Johnston High School in Johnston, Iowa, where she’s worked for a decade.

The Council of Chief State School Officers selects the recipient of the annual honor and cited Wessling’s passion and innovative approaches, such as incorporating school technology in her classes.

“She is … passionate about learning in the 21st century, believing that teachers must ‘recognize the importance of teaching that marries content to skill,’ that problem solving and critical thinking are useless without the facts, but the reverse is also true,” the council said.

“She says, ‘Students construct knowledge when it is relevant to them, when they have a real authentic purpose, when they have an audience that gives them context.’ For her students and her fellow teachers, she never loses sight of her goal to create life-long learners and genuine thinkers accustomed to intellectual risk.”

In a blog entry posted on the White House web site, Wessling described her approach to teaching.

“If you were to come into my classroom, the first thing you would notice is that my desk is in the back corner, despite the building design to make it otherwise. This placement is but an outward sign of an implicit philosophy, that teaching must be learner-centered,” she wrote.

“The ‘desk in the back of the room’ displaces hierarchies, creates an environment where a teacher becomes a lead learner, and evolves into a web of interdependence where the classroom walls become boundless. When we embrace this open model of learning, the consumers of our curriculum will become designers of their own learning.”

Later in her blog entry, she wrote: “We need 21st-century teachers, not just adults teaching in the 21st century.”

Obama used the ceremony to speak about the importance of education to a strong democracy, and he also called on parents to do their part to support students at home.

He told Wessling and the teachers representing other states that at a time of state budget shortfalls, “I’m committed to doing every single thing that I can do to support your work.”

“You’re the key to our success in the global economy—preparing our kids to compete at a time when a nation’s most valuable currency is the knowledge and skills of its people,” Obama said to the gathered educators.

Wessling, who accepted a trophy in the form of a glass apple from the president, said later that she and her family had met with Obama in the Oval Office. She said her son was about ready to lose his first tooth and Obama wiggled it.

“Our dream for our students is the same dream we have for our own children—to be recognized for their strengths, to learn from their weaknesses, and to be seen as a person of infinite potential,” she wrote in her blog entry.


Video of White House ceremony

Wessling’s blog entry

Council of Chief State School Officers

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