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The Making of a Master Educator

Becoming a master educator takes years of experience, listening to students and learning from colleagues. Follow 3 NEA members on their paths to success.

Every educator has a different story

What stands out in Stephen Bongiovi’s mind is a great professor in his master’s degree program. For Mary Beth Solano, it’s a story about kindergarteners in the bathroom. And for Joe Galego, a lesson he learned from a nurse.

But for all of them, becoming a skilled educator took years of experience on the job and a lot of help from their colleagues. They insist there’s no shortcut to achieving excellence in teaching.

Many people talk about boosting teacher quality these days. Some districts have tried offering bonuses to those who raise their students’ test scores. That approach has consistently failed. Few policymakers have bothered asking skilled educators themselves how they got to be so good.

So we did that, using an online discussion board, Facebook and other avenues.

Everyone agrees it takes time

Many who responded, like Bongiovi, Solano, and Galego, remembered incidents that shaped their evolving practice. But almost all said this is not something you learn overnight, or in a year or two. It takes time.

“The reason seasoned teachers seem to have a lot more skills is that they have had lots of opportunities to learn from their own failures and the successes of others,” said Suzanne Dunn, a middle school reading teacher from Maine, on our discussion board.

What takes so long? It’s learning how to work with the wide range of complex human beings found in even the most homogeneous class.

Listen, then engage

“Listening to your students is the most important skill you can learn as a teacher,” said Dunn. “However, along with that comes the importance of doing something with the listening that shows students they were heard.”

Great educators must know their subject matter, but that’s just the start. They must also master the art of engaging young minds.

That was high school English teacher Stephen Bongiovi’s focus. Now retired, Bongiovi was the 2005-2006 New York State Teacher of the Year. Several years ago, he made a surprising discovery in his own personnel files: At the end of his first year, an administrator recommended that he be let go.

That proposal was not carried out. Bongiovi doesn’t know why, but he does remember that he wasn’t a master teacher at first—far from it.

Bongiovi had a breakthrough in a master’s program at Hofstra University, where he worked with Professor Charles Calitri. “I remember him asking me, ‘Do you want to learn English, or do you want to become a better teacher?’” Bongiovi’s answer—clearly the right one from Calitri’s point of view—was to become a better teacher.

Calitri was all about active learning. He showed his graduate students a simple exercise for teaching students about prepositions. He drew a figure on the blackboard, and had students wad up balls of masking tape and throw them at the figure. Then he asked them to describe where the ball stuck: on the figure, over the figure, underneath, and so on.

It was a simple lesson that Bongiovi later used, but more important was the pedagogical approach.

Bongiovi also joined the National Council of Teachers of English and picked up more ideas for active learning from the group’s publications. Like this one: When he assigned a novel, he asked students, working in small groups, to choose a sentence they felt was the most important in each chapter, and explain why.

Then he had the class debate the choices.

“It doesn’t really matter which sentence they pick,” he says. “What’s important is the discussion and how it illuminates the novel.”

All through his career, Bongiovi learned from colleagues, and never more than when he became department head. Part of his job was to watch less experienced colleagues teach and offer feedback. Bongiovi benefited as much as they did. “I learned from every lesson I observed.”

See things from your students’ point of view

For Mary Beth Solano, recently retired from teaching English and language arts in Colorado, the incident that most shaped her work happened before she even had her own class. She was a teaching assistant, working her way through college, when an experienced kindergarten teacher told her about losing track of two little children, a boy and a girl. “She found them in the bathroom, naked as jaybirds, apparently comparing bodies,” recalls Solano. “She had the presence of mind to say to them, ‘People have mostly the same body parts, but we’re different in what we choose to wear. Why don’t you put your clothes back on and let’s see what all the kids in the class chose to wear today.’”

A memorable story, but what did Solano learn from it?

“She didn’t get mad at them or make a big deal of it. In any situation, you can choose to escalate, or you can look for a way that stops what’s happening but keeps everybody’s self-esteem intact and gets them back on track. That story has helped me make decisions my whole life.”

Joe Galego is a high school security guard in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and a trainer for other security guards. His stand-out story is from a training he took in crisis prevention back in 2002, with prison guards, nurses, drug rehabilitation workers, and others who sometimes have to deal with violent people. One rehab center nurse told the group that she once walked into a patient’s room and he threw a bag of urine at her.

How was that story relevant to a high school security guard? “We analyzed that situation and realized that this man lived there,” says Galego. “It was his home. She was the visitor. Maybe if she had knocked on the door before entering, he would not have felt she was invading his privacy.”

In other words, try to see the situation from the other person’s point of view.

That meant, when he was an elementary school guard, that he often would sit on the ground when he was working with a child so he could relate at eye level.

Now that he’s in a high school, “some of them are so tall, I’d have to stand on a chair to be at eye level,” he says, but his approach is the same.

Galego trains guards in non-violent intervention using what he calls “verbal judo.” The first rule: Don’t react as soon as something upsets you. The second: Don’t take it personally. It’s their anger coming out—it’s not about you.

When a student mouths off at him, he’s likely to respond, “I didn’t expect that coming from you. I don’t talk to you like that.”

In his training course, he tells colleagues, “You have to remain calm and talk softly. If you scream, they’ve won.

“Sometimes it’s tough to remember you’re the adult and they are kids—with so many different backgrounds and problems.”

Read more about how your fellow NEA members became master educators.

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