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New event honors the best in local teachers

POSTED: April 12, 2009 12:45 a.m.
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Quick — think of your favorite teacher you had in school.

Bet it didn’t take you long. Maybe she shared with you the gentle poems of Walt Whitman or the dazzling works of Van Gogh.

Perhaps he opened your mind to the splendors of American history or steered you toward your dream of becoming an engineer.

Maybe one or two of those teachers even changed your life.

The Featherbone Communiversity has teamed up with a local group of educational leaders to honor nine such teachers at its first “Masters in Teaching ... Life Changers at Work” event. Teachers from preschool to college will be recognized Tuesday for the work they’ve done in the classroom that’s left a lasting impression on this community.

Gus Whalen is the founder of the Featherbone Communiversity, which is located in the building that once housed his family’s apparel manufacturing plant. In addition to hatching the idea for the Communiversity, Whalen initiated the master teacher awards program to recognize dedicated teachers, learn from them and encourage others to become master teachers.

“The intellectual capital of the nation, the brain power and the creativity of our people, is our greatest asset. That may be more true now than ever,” he said. “... That’s why it’s so important that we have the brightest, most compassionate teachers in the classroom.

Our group felt we needed a way to understand them, recognize them and love them.”

Whalen said to his knowledge, nothing like this has ever been done before.

Educators from Gainesville and Hall County schools, Lakeview Academy, Gainesville State College, Brenau University and Lanier Tech joined community leaders on the masters in teaching award committee.

Each institution’s representatives nominated several teachers for the award, and the committee determined which teachers met the criteria of a master. The committee concluded master teachers have a deep understanding of their subject matter, have high expectations of themselves and students and change students’ lives by inspiring, facilitating and modeling excellence.

Will Schofield, superintendent of Hall County schools, served on the master teacher awards committee. He said these honors are important because they recognize teachers not for being better than everyone else, but for being representatives of what great teaching looks like in it its purest form.

“This isn’t a ‘pat you on the back and give you a plaque you’re the best,’ this is a ‘pat you on the back and let’s celebrate the art of teaching, and you represent what’s best in teaching,’” Schofield said.

“One of the most important characteristics, I think, of the individuals who were chosen was that they had to be life changers. They had to be people who had proven themselves over time and you could come up with example after example of people they had an effect on and changed their life.”

Following breakfast Tuesday at the Communiversity, the Rev. Bill Coates, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Gainesville, will lead the nine teachers through a discussion on the “heart of a master teacher,” which aims to define why people become teachers.

Bill Hale, a longtime faculty member at the University of Georgia, will then lead a discussion on the “head of a master teacher” and how they do what they do.

Sloan Jones, communications director for Gainesville State College, said Hall County schools’ rigor specialist Sally Krisel will document the forum on master teaching. Other teachers can then use the proceedings to develop their approaches to teaching.

“A purpose of this is to identify and document master teaching,” Jones said. “What is it?”

Whalen said he believes society doesn’t quite yet understand the mastery of teaching. He said he believes if people did appreciate the “sheer beauty and mastery” of those nine teachers, it would encourage more people to go into the teaching profession.

Jones said dozens of educators were invited to attend the forum, and a few seats remain open for current or retired educators who wish to attend but have not yet received an invitation. She said community members considering a career in education are also invited to attend.

Schofield said the nine “life changers” to be honored this week may have been born master teachers, but it could help local educators to glean the commonalities among all the award recipients and articulate them to help educators become more effective in changing the lives of others.

“I think that’s why so many of us have been so excited about this, because it truly is different,” he said.

Whalen and Schofield said they plan to make the master teaching awards an annual event. Schofield said this year, all the honorees are traditional teachers by training. But the award committee could expand the definition of a teacher in upcoming years.

“I think that what we’ll find as we start looking a little deeper is that there are people out there who are just incredible teachers, but that’s not their title,” Schofield said. “They may be pastors, they may be CEOs or they may be social workers. When we start broadening the definition of teacher, which we hope to do in the future, I think it will be even more interesting.”



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