The students mobbed Sandra Geddes when she showed up for the November meeting of the Aqua Eagles Ecology Club at Westbrook Elementary School in Bethesda. It wasn’t because she brought them sugar cookies in the shape of crabs.
These kids know and value great teaching. Their appreciation of this veteran educator could offer a lesson for some of today’s school reformers.
Geddes, 68, retired from teaching in June but remains active at Westbrook. In 44 years in the profession, she inspired thousands of students, some of whom came to love science so much that they became scientists. She mentored teachers who learned from her techniques and became so beloved that the Westbrook community is planning to dedicate a building addition to her.
“Her enthusiasm for education, for science, for inspiring children was constant,” Principal Rebecca Jones said. “She never let up.”
Ten-year-old Charlie Oakes, who came to the meeting wearing a hat knitted in the shape of a fish, said: “She always made her lessons fun, and you’d learn more that way. One time we were studying shad, and she brought in shad, and we got to eat it. And she’d tell us stories about her family that always had something to do with the lesson.”
It has become almost axiomatic among some reformers to hail the virtues of young teachers, such as Teach for America’s college graduate recruits, who get five weeks of summer training before teaching at-risk students and are asked to commit to two years of teaching.
Some reformers say that highly effective veteran teachers are vital to schools. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards in August that great veteran teachers should be rewarded.
But many veterans say that changes being promoted (some with Duncan’s encouragement) are assaults on them. In some states, reformers are trying to eliminate policies that grant teachers tenure and reward them in salary for experience and graduate degrees. Some reformers are also trying to drop last-in, first-out employment practices that require districts, when implementing layoffs, to fire the teachers most recently hired, who are often young. And some reformers say that teachers reach a plateau in skills after a certain number of years.
By all accounts, Geddes kept getting better as the years went on. She taught in urban and rural schools before going to Westbrook 20 years ago.
There was no dedicated science program or teacher when she arrived to teach fourth grade, and she began to build a program.
She incorporated science themes into reading and other subjects, creating an integrated curriculum that other Westbrook teachers use. And she created opportunities for kids to actually do science and learn about taking care of the environment by taking care of the environment.
“The program teaches students to be real stewards and lifelong lovers of the environment,” she said.
Geddes designed annual programs for students to raise horseshoe crabs and shad and return them to their natural habitats as part of restoration efforts. Westbrook students raised bay grasses and planted native trees in the Potomac River watershed. She created the Aqua Eagles, which helps protect the Chesapeake Bay through initiatives such as growing rain gardens, raising trout and hosting a native-seed collection program. (The book “Let the River Run Silver Again” by Sandy Burk tells the story of how Westbrook students and the Aqua Eagles helped return shad to the Potomac.)
To provide new experiences for students, Geddes partnered with environmental organizations such as the Chesapeake Bay Trust, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Audubon Society, Trout Unlimited, the Maryland Association of Outdoor Education, the Potomac River Conservancy and Living Classroom.
As a result of all of that work, Maryland named Westbrook a “green school.”
Geddes is so well known in the science education community that when Kate Finn, a third-grade teacher, recently attended a gathering of teachers and mentioned she was from Westbrook, she was asked, “Do you know Sandra Geddes?”
Geddes said she was lucky to have taught at Westbrook for two decades.
“With our new principal, Miss Jones, there is a lot less focus on spending time getting ready for the [standardized] tests,” she said. “Our test scores are great, so definitely we are fortunate. I believe this program creates good thinkers, good writers and good readers. But I know I probably wouldn’t be allowed to do what I do at every school, which is too bad, because I think all children would benefit from it.”
Geddes said she isn’t a big fan of some of the reforms favored by the Obama administration, including the notion of sending minimally trained young people to teach high-risk students.
“I love the concept of TFA, but they are not trained teachers,” Geddes said. “You learn by doing, but it’s important that you know what you are doing when you are teaching children.”
Evaluating teachers by the standardized test scores of students, another popular reform, is unfair, she said.
“My [students’] test scores are fabulous,” she said. “But they come from parents who make them fabulous.”
What she’d like to do — and might, now that she is retired — is try to build a science program like the one at Westbrook at an inner-city school.
“Retiring doesn’t mean I’m going to stop working and teaching,” she said.