Maryland teacher Michelle Shearer, the newly named 2011 Teacher of the Year, will be honored on Tuesday by President Obama President Obama at the White House along with state winners of the annual contest.

Shearer is a 14-year teaching veteran who now teaches chemistry at High School in Frederick and who used to teach at the Maryland School for the Deaf. She was chosen for her passion for teaching and her ability to reach students, including many who have traditionally been underrepresented in the sciences, including minority students and those with special needs.

I spoke with Shearer about her award, the state of public education today and the direction that the school reform movement has taken. Shearer is a strong advocate for public school teachers, and expresses some concerns about the prevalence of standardized tests, the drive to use student test scores to pay teachers, and more. Here is part of the conversation:

Q) Why did you go into teaching?

A) I wanted to be a teacher from a young age. My mother was an elementary school music teacher and my father was a chemist. But when I went to college [Princeton University] I got the idea I should go into premed studies. The short version is that I volunteered in the classroom at a New Jersey school for the deaf. I loved it. The classroom drew me like a magnet. I got into the enthusiasm of helping students learn science and the skills they would need to succeed in life. It really drew me in. I looked forward to going to school to volunteer so much that I realized I wanted to make it my career because I decided I wanted to love my job.

Q) What’s the hardest part about being a teacher?

A) You never have enough time to do what you want to do. Teachers have so many goals for their students, so many goals for themselves professionally. The most frustrating part is that you find there aren’t enough hours in the day. Teachers constantly plan creative lessons. We have responsibilities dealing with student work, grading papers, etc. We want to be available for students after school, we want to attend their after-school activities, we want to further our own professional development, we want to learn more about how to use technology in the classroom....If there is a frustrating part at all, it is that we wish there was more time to be as effective as want to be.

Q) Standardized tests have become ubiquitous in public education. Are they emphasized too much?

A) Testing is one aspect of learning and one aspect of assessment. Obviously tests tell teachers whether or not their students are learning the content. I teach AP [Advanced Placement] chemistry, and my students take an AP test at the end of the course. But I know that that test is just a three-hour snapshot. There are so many other things they are learning during the year -- how to problem solve, how to work in a lab -- that aren’t measured on the test.

We also help students develop skills they need for life, and many of those skills can’t be measured by a test. Things like a student’s ability to stick with a problem until it is solved. How do you test resilience?

...Teachers want to see a balanced approach, and overemphasis on testing means that we can’t spend as much time developing other skills that we know are so essential to student success in life.

Q) Did you have a favorite subject in school?

A) My favorite subject as a student was math. I thought for years and years I would do nothing but math and be a mathematician. But when I got into chemistry, I loved the hands-on nature of science, and chemistry has enough math in it that it satisfied my need to do math all the time. I got the best of both worlds.

Q) What was your least favorite subject in school?

A) I didn’t have a least favorite subject. I was an eager student. When I went to college I took everything I could, Japanese, architecture, Islamic literature. I realized I have a passion for learning. Problem-solving areas are my true passion, but I also love to write, and I love music, and I love sports....

Q) Did you have a favorite teacher or a few teachers who were especially influential?

A) I graduated from the public school system in Delaware, and I had many great teachers. I had a second-grade teacher who went out of her way to give me extra enrichment projects. A sixth-grade teacher who was the first woman science teacher I ever had. An English teacher in high school who demanded nothing less than our absolute best. I had a band instructor who expected nothing less than perfection. Of course I had math teachers who were so enthusiastic and passionate about math that you couldn’t help but love it. I was privileged to have excellent teachers in public schools.

Q) I’m interested in your views of teacher training. Teach For America, as I’m sure you know, places new college graduates into high-poverty schools after five weeks of training. What do you think of that approach?

A) What is important to me is that students who are studying to be teachers get enough practical experience in the classroom. Teaching is a hands-on job. There are theories, ideas, and all of that is important. But how can you step into a classroom with 35 students who have very individualized needs? All of the management skills and energy required to reach all of these students is something that you learn in the classroom. The combination of theory and strong emphasis of in-classroom teaching is the best approach. So I support students in education programs who get into the classroom early in their studies, with practical experience infused into the theory.

Q) Another hot issue in school reform is teacher assessment, and the approach that grades teachers in part by the standardized test scores of their students. Is that fair?

A) Any evaluation of teachers needs to be based on a variety of factors. Teaching is a complex and intricate business. I can understand the need to want to quantify everything. I’m a science person, and I love numbers, so I do understand. But students aren’t formulas. Teaching can’t be boiled down to a formula. There are so many factors that go into effective teaching and so many variables that affect a student’s learning — home environment, health. It’s extremely difficult to boil down it down to any one particular measure. Even though that’s convenient for some people, it doesn’t serve our profession well....

Teachers want to be evaluated fairly and we want to be evaluated on the things that really matter. Any evaluation system has to have a multifaceted approach and there are any number of ways a teacher can demonstrate effectiveness in a classroom.... We want to be evaluated in a way that ...takes into account the complexity of teaching and how challenging it is to reach a diverse group of students and have them achieve in all areas.

Q) What does a national Teacher of the Year actually do?

A) Essentially I will be on sabbatical from the classroom for the next school year. I’ll do at least 150 speaking engagements throughout the course of the year, and travel around the country as well as internationally. The Teacher of the Year speaks at educational conferences ... and tries to reach a very broad audience to get everybody in the nation talking about what’s best for public schools.

Q) It’s hard to go a day without someone saying public education is in crisis in this country. How do you assess the state of public education today?

A) We need to focus on the success of our public schools. We need to recognize, celebrate and emulate the successful programs that we have and the students who are making incredible achievements in our public school classrooms.

There is always a tendency to focus on what isn’t working. But there is so much that is working. And we need to use what’s working to help direct and improve the schools that are not serving students as well as they should....

There are brilliant teachers in America. Their stories need to be told. This award really gives me the opportunity to communicate the positive things going on.

Q) Are students today different than when you started teaching 14 years ago?

A) What I’ve noticed over my career is that students are very accelerated compared to where they were when I started. When I started, my honors chemistry class had mostly students in 11th and 12th grades. Then I started having 10th graders and ninth graders. I have students in AP chemistry who are in 10th grade. You are talking about students who are 15 years old doing the same level of work as college students.

So there is the acceleration. And students are more savvy, very in tune with technology, and again I think this is an interesting change to note. We hear so much about negative changes, but I see some very positive changes. The willingness to take advanced courses at younger ages and challenge themselves is important.


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