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award teacher tips

How to be an award-winning teacher


Three celebrated educators share their innovative classroom practices, along with tips on how to apply for honors and what to do once you’ve won.

Be Transparent and Communicative

By Ali Alowonle

Award: Finalist for Minnesota’s 2017 Teacher of the Year award, nominated for Clark County’s New Teacher of the Year award

My homeroom is 4th- and 5th-graders: 21 gifted students, a mix of boys and girls. It’s nice because the 5th-graders are really the mentors, and next year the 4th-graders get to take on that role. It’s a really great chance for them to grow in leadership. Looping also lets us hit the ground running. I know half my students already at the start of the year. They know the rules and they can help teach the new kids. We get a lot more instructional time that way.

It’s a lot of project-based learning in here. For instance, for chemistry we’ll work on teaching them the properties of atoms and bonds and we’ll go through the whole chemistry unit, but then it’s peppered throughout with different labs they can do. At the end of a unit, they do an individual project where they can ask themselves, “What do I want to do with this?” They can do some experimenting at home, or in the classroom. The only criteria I have is to incorporate something from the unit and then go deep with it.

With intense students like mine, connecting to the family is super important. I send periodic emails to individual parents to let them know how things are going. I always try to touch on the positives, which is something they’re not always used to. I’ve had responses from parents saying: “I’m really surprised by your email. I thought this was going to be another email about how my child was sent home today.”

I also send everyone a very detailed weekly newsletter about what it looks like to be a child in this room for a week. I write down what we’ve been doing each day, in each subject, each project. Especially because a lot of students struggle with executive functioning, planning, and meeting deadlines. I lay it out for the parents: Here’s what you might want to be asking the child. Here’s something you can do at home to extend the learning going on the classroom.

Tips on Awards: Once you are nominated, some awards require you to submit a portfolio. My best advice is to write about what is truly in your heart. Be honest about your philosophy, pedagogy, and teaching. Also try to provide specific examples and anecdotal stories.

To balance duties that come with awards, first take care of your students’ needs and then carve time out of your personal life to deal with any obligations from awards. This way, you are staying true to what really matters—the kids!

(Next page: Tips from 2 other award-winning teachers)

Focus on PBL and Hands-On Learning

By Anthony Johnson

Awards: Regional Teacher of the Year in southwestern North Carolina, Apple Distinguished Educator, and TED Innovative Educator

On the first day of school, I issue my students a PASSPORT (which stands for Preparing All Students for Success by Participating in an Ongoing Real-world simulation using Technology) and explain that their yearlong adventure to “Johnsonville” starts today. The school year is a simulation of adulthood where students work, create, and learn about personal finance and entrepreneurial skills. They experience real-world situations and gain insights into global affairs. Students don’t view my classroom as a “classroom” but more of an interactive city where all projects intertwine to create an ecosystem of businesses and homes.

Each student has the opportunity to become an entrepreneur, politician, banker, and more. They are given $1,000 in Johnsonville cash to begin their lives. Students must buy a house or rent an apartment, earn wages, and manage their finances. As the children buy and sell items I donate, they learn math skills along with life lessons.

As they would in a real business, they manage a database of their clients or suppliers, create advertising plans, and track their income to ensure they are making a profit. Students even learn different levels of government and hold elections for positions of power including president and city council. Students can also earn extra money through academic achievements and good behavior.

I have discovered Defined STEM is a great tool to help me create relevant lessons I can incorporate into Johnsonville. The supplementary curriculum provides students with research resources, videos, and project prompts that encourage students to think outside the box and put them in real-world situations.

At the end of the 2016 school year, my 5th-grade students scored an average of 85 percent on the state science exam, while my school as a whole scored 58 percent. I believe my focus on PBL and hands-on learning was the catalyst for this major boost in test scores.

Tips on Awards: One of the many benefits of being an Apple Distinguished Educator and TED Innovative Educator is working with the best minds in the teaching profession. Collaborating is key for growth, not only for students but educators as well. I am a life-long learner, and I want to make a contribution to the field. For the past seven years, I’ve been actively sharing best practices and innovative teaching strategies with teachers across the nation through speaking engagements, websites, and presentations. Both Apple and TED provide platforms for me to reach millions of people across the world. There is an immeasurable reward in sharing ideas and mentoring other educators.

special education

Student Choice and Classroom Environment are Important

By Jamie Reese

Awards: 2016 Ventura County Teacher of the Year, Google Certified Educator, and Amazon Education Innovator

The kids I work with range from kindergarten to third grade, and they all have emotional challenges. They come to me with everything from mood disorders to PTSD. Some of them are on the autism spectrum. There isn’t one particular type of kid; they all arrive with their own issues. My district has started making the switch to student-centered classrooms, so it’s up to us, the teachers, to figure out how to give each student the attention and help they need, while at the same time maintaining classroom order.

Research shows that among kids, amplification decreases special ed referrals. It’s beneficial for everyone to access the curriculum, not just kids who are hard of hearing. So using Lightspeed Technologies’ Topcat ceiling-mounted speaker and their Flexcat two-way communication pods literally changes the tone of my classroom. I no longer have to use my “teacher voice.” With this population, raising your voice at all can be triggering for them. Now, I barely modulate my voice at all. The speaker also allows me to diffuse calming music throughout the classroom, which creates a peaceful atmosphere that helps everyone relax and feel safe.

Students with emotional challenges, especially the younger kids, are often exceptionally shy. So, to help promote independence and security, we have a “chill out” space in our classroom. It’s an attached area with an igloo mural painted on the wall where students can go without actually leaving the room. By taking one of the wireless Flexcat pods with them, they can still be productive and engaged in the lesson, hearing everything I say and chiming in with questions or answers if they have them.

Many of our kids have developed a lot of mistrust when it comes to school personnel. One way I show my trust in them is Genius Hour, which is based on an effort that started at Google. The idea is that engineers spend 20 percent of their work time on a project of their own choosing. For my students, Genius Hour is when they get to self-select a topic they want to learn about. Typically, it’s about an animal or an insect. They do research, give a presentation, and make some kind of visual. For the presentations, l have students speak into a microphone, because it makes them feel important, like they’re a big deal.

Tips on awards: People want to hear authenticity and passion when reading essays for awards.  I would also get a team of people who support you and can help edit. They will think of things that you do but that you forget about!

Once you’ve won an award, balance is key. I prioritize my students’ needs and then work really hard to plan in advance so I can stay up to date with everything. Most of my duties that have come along with the title have been optional, but I try to do as many as I can to honor the county and respect the value that the title holds.

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