Sharon Fitzgerald and Wendy Smith were recently named Teachers of the Year at St. Johnsbury School for the 2011-2012 school year. Teachers for the award were nominated by colleagues and evaluated by co-principals Martha Dubuque and Bernice Burroughs, as well as literacy consultant Linda Schneider, and director of mathematics Regina Quinn.
The team of four examined each teacher's performance in five categories: 1.) Learning -- each educator continues to acquire new learning in the content area of his/her professional endorsement and reflects this new learning in professional practice. Each educator is knowledgeable about the content requirements of his/her endorsement; 2.) Professional knowledge -- each educator continues to acquire knowledge in best practices in teaching and the learning process, so as to improve learning opportunities for all students; 3.) Colleagueship -- each educator works collaboratively with colleagues at local, state, and/or national levels to improve student learning through implementation of standards, district goals, school goals, and/or action plans; 4.) Advocacy -- each educator works to improve the educational health of Vermont learners, and promotes fairness and equity for all students and members of the educational community. The educator engages the family and the community in partnership to promote student learning; and 5.) Accountability -- each educator carries out professional responsibilities ethically.
Due to the school's size, St. Johnsbury School was allowed to choose two candidates.
"When Bernice [Burroughs] and I got together, we decided we were going to focus on interdisciplinary learning, differentiating instruction, and the culture of teamwork," Dubuque said. "We want to involve students through real-life experiences and connect themes across the curriculum ... We want the best strategies to meet the students' needs."
Dubuque and Burrough's came up with a plan based on the school's needs called the "shared school-wide classroom management system," which focused on what is known to educators as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support (PBIS).
"The middle school team, and especially Sharon [Fitzgerald] and Wendy [Smith], is a very strong team," Dubuque said. "Sharon [Fitzgerald] and Wendy [Smith] really know a lot about how to teach adolescents. They have an incredible empathy and compassion for their students that allows them to be great middle-school teachers."
"Every teacher on the middle school staff supports each other and works together," Fitzgerald said. "It's a team effort."
Fitzgerald and Smith both teach a two-hour mixed seventh- and eighth-grade humanities class and often work together covering literature, writing and social studies.
"Martha [Dubuque] has given a lot of new protocols," Fitzgerald said. "We're really trying to consolidate our lessons so that we can reach the students on multiple levels."
Smith mentioned a "Road to the Revolution" project their students completed last school year where they were required to integrate some sort of artwork into their projects. "We had the art teacher come in and give lessons that the students could then use for their projects," Smith said. "We want them to evaluate the texts we're teaching in different ways."
Fitzgerald and Smith are faced with dealing with a very long class period, so they choose to break things up into 30-40 minute segments to give their students breaks and a chance to reevaluate the lessons through different lenses.
"We try to mix partner work with individual work and incorporate technology as well," Smith said. The two want to present the material in as many ways as possible, so that the students can learn which method works best for them. "Choice is really important because it lets the students work in whichever way fits them best as individuals and is most efficient."
"We use videos, and PowerPoint's, and music when we teach," Fitzgerald said. "This morning we were playing a bunch of songs that must have been too old because the kids didn't know any of them," Fitzgerald said while laughing. "They did know 'You Can't Always Get What You Want,' but they didn't know it was Mick Jagger who sang it."
Last year, Smith's students teamed up with art teacher Camille Miille for a project where they had to create their own country, as well as that country's national bird. Because the students could not decide on any particular bird, they chose their three favorites. A penguin, a pigeon, and a pterodactyl were combined to create a Smidgwindactyl -- the students' drawing of the bird hangs proudly in the classroom for everyone to see.
Fitzgerald and Smith were honored in mid-October at UVM's Ira Allen Chapel. The event was full of teachers from around the district who had also been named Teacher of the Year at their respective schools.
Ellen Baker, director of teacher education at UVM, spoke highly of the two, quoting one of Smith's peers when she said, "Teachers just don't come any better than Wendy. Wendy is one of the most unselfish colleagues I have ever worked with."
Baker also commented about Fitzgerald's work in the classroom, "Her amazing positive attitude and student-centered base make her a role model and teacher leader on her team."
Fayneese Miller, UVM's dean of the College of Education and Social Services, was the keynote speaker at the event. Representatives of Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy also spoke.