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The Leavenworth Times - Leavenworth, KS
  • Pioneer Pride: Teacher of Year shares thoughts

  • Through the Kansas State Department of Education's Teacher of the Year recognition program, Leavenworth High School English teacher and USD 453 Secondary Teacher of the Year, Jeff Baxter, submitted the following thoughts and observations related to his chosen profession.
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  • Through the Kansas State Department of Education's Teacher of the Year recognition program, Leavenworth High School English teacher and USD 453 Secondary Teacher of the Year, Jeff Baxter, submitted the following thoughts and observations related to his chosen profession.
    I teach because it is who I am and why I was put here at this place and this time. I am the teacher I am because of every experience I have had on the journey. Today, I am the best teacher I have ever been in my career. Teaching – the noblest profession.
    When I practiced law I had a client invite me one day to his work at Fort Leavenworth in CALL (Center for Army Lessons Learned). The experience changed how I approached everything I do professionally. CALL microscopically examines every Army combat or near-combat event around the world immediately after the event, determining how the event could have been prevented or handled more efficiently or resolved more effectively.
    Self-reflection is now one of my greatest strengths. After every lesson, unit, quarter, and semester, I examine what happened and plan for the next day, week, quarter, or semester to improve. I am brutal with myself and try to discover how I can make my classroom more challenging, memorable, and inspirational. It is why I have embraced technology, model writing and reading, and demand more of myself than I demand of my students.
    Since January 2011 I have lost more than 270 pounds. That is not a typo ­– 270. Because my teaching style involves constant interaction and requires a bountiful amount of energy, not carrying two metaphorical people on my shoulders has made a huge difference. The weight loss has been a central factor in my regeneration as a teacher: I can now do what my mind has known I should do to inspire students.
    My classroom is set up in eight groups of tables with four rolling chairs at each table. On any given day, students are working introspectively by themselves, collaboratively in groups of four, and collectively as a class. I move and interact throughout the period – questioning, encouraging, suggesting, guiding. The students and I write every day in composition notebooks to a variety of prompts. Some are based on the particular text we are reading, some on current topics, others on photos, art, film clips, and music. I've even used New Yorker magazine covers.
    Weekly, at the end of class, students answer three questions on a 3 x 5 note card: first, identify one thing you learned this week; second, identify one question you have about what we have been doing in class this week; and third, identify one thing you have improved on in the class this week. By the time I have reviewed over 100 of these over the weekend, I have an excellent idea of what is happening in my classroom. These drive my preparation for the following week.
    Page 2 of 3 - All of my students have a Google Apps for Education email account. My lessons, notes, and handouts are Google Docs and are available to students should they misplace anything or be absent. I respond to any email question within 24 hours or students get 10 extra credit points (typically I respond within a much shorter time). I regularly post a TED or YouTube video for students to view; perhaps an inspiring talk by a passenger who survived the airplane plummeting into the Hudson River or a clever video about logical fallacies.
    Students get the "lesson" at home and then do the homework in the classroom the next day – this is referred to as flipping the classroom. Recently, I sent students two versions of the Woody Guthrie Depression Era song, "The Ballad of Tom Joad" during our study of The Grapes of Wrath. One was a cover by Bruce Springsteen and the other by Rage Against the Machine. Students were asked to decide which version most accurately captured the tone of Steinbeck's novel and why. The assignment stimulated incredible general discussion about the tone of the novel, and more specifically about the imagery of Chapter 25, one of the finest chapters in the English language. It was one of the "aha" moments.
    We live in an era of cognitive accountability in which success is measured by the ability of students to master the skills of recognizing words, calculating numbers, and detecting patterns – skill sets that can be practiced until brains are fried and hands numbed. As a nation, we worry that our students are not scoring as high as students from Singapore or Japan. These tests do not generally measure the traits that made America a great nation: determination, discipline, grit, self-control (the kind of traits apparent in the rescue of the Apollo 13).
    As Paul Tough points out in How Children Succeed, character traits such as curiosity, persistence, and conscientiousness are more crucial to achieving success than the cognitive skills.
    By focusing on developing these character traits (while not excluding the cognitive skills), teachers can prepare students for lifelong success. For example, my students' first composition is worth 25 points. I mark one-third of the paper and then give the whole paper a score out of 25. I then answer any questions the students have about what I marked. Students can then revise the entire paper, and re-submit it in two days. If all they did was correct what I marked, they keep their first score. If their revision includes the other two-thirds of the paper (meaning they learned from the one-third and applied it to the rest of the paper), they get a new score for the entire paper. Students learned from making mistakes, solved problems, developed revision techniques, and gained satisfaction that comes from being persistent and asking questions. These are noteworthy character traits, plus cognitive skills, that we are intentionally developing.
    Page 3 of 3 - I am thankful to know that I have made a difference in the lives of young men and women. This year the LHS students honored me as the recipient of the Teacher LUV Award (Leadership, Unity, and Vision). The student letters praised me for caring, encouraging, and motivating them to be better students and more mature citizens.
    The Future Educators of America student chapter has honored me as Teacher of the Month several times. Awards from students such as these are more cherished than any monetary bonus, but seeing students discover, as Susan Cain observed, how to "solve problems, make art, and think deeply" is the best reward.

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