The Power of Exceptional Teaching

By November 18, 2014 eNews

By Farnaz Golshani Flechner, MBEF Executive Director

Maggie and MichaelMost of us can remember a teacher that inspired us, helped us, taught us to love learning, and maybe led us to the path we are on today. I remember mine vividly. She was my tenth grade English teacher, Carol Jago, and she had the remarkable ability to make everything that we were reading and learning relevant to our own lives and challenges. We read of literary heroes in The Odyssey and Beowulf. We looked at art and listened to music throughout history that attempted to depict war, and the journey of those who lost their way after a battle. We compared these stories to current conflicts and to the experiences of soldiers with PTSD. We talked about temptations (Sirens and Lotus Eaters) and how to overcome them. I remember dreaming about the Odyssey. Through this experience, I learned to love learning. I discovered my voice.

In Manhattan Beach we are blessed with many remarkable teachers. Over the past 6 years, MBUSD’s Teachers of the year have been named as Top 16 LA County Teachers of the Year. Mira Costa Choral Teacher Michael Hayden was one of five State Teachers of the Year in 2014, and Maggie Mabery was recently named the 2015 California Teacher of the Year. Both were selected from more than 380,000 teachers throughout the state. In addition, this year, John Jackson, our beloved Middle School Principal, was recognized as the 2015 California Middle School Principal of the Year. Wow. What is it about Manhattan Beach that is able to attract, retain, and nurture these educators? What can we do to continue this trend?

Anyone who has had the opportunity to see Maggie Mabery teach can see that her energy is contagious. She loves kids, and she loves science. For Maggie, teaching is an ideal realm where she can bring her two passions together. She started teaching in Chicago and then went to Beverly Hills Unified before learning about MBUSD and its reputation for strong community support.  She wanted to work in a community that prioritizes education in this way. “The support we get from the community is awesome; the students are engaged and they want to learn.”

What makes Mabery an exceptional teacher is her willingness to share and to build on the work of her colleagues.  She believes in team teaching and project-based education. Kids in her classes rarely sit down. They explore through labs and learn through discovery. Her favorite classes are her dissections, because she explains, “I get to see my students’ eyes light up as they learn new things.” She loves any class that includes “fire and things that zoom or light up.” In her “stink bomb lab”, students mix sulfur with iron and hydrochloric acid, and suddenly the whole school smells like a stink bomb.

Maggie asserts that this is the most exciting time to be in education. “I wanted to do a lesson on chemical bonding today, and it just took me two minutes to search the web for a great lesson on the subject. Everything is literally at your fingertips.” Maggie’s colleagues refer to her as a “beta teacher” as she is always learning from other teachers and adapting her lessons based on new observations.

When asked what our district can do to retain excellent educators like Maggie, she responded, “Continued support from administrators, encouraging teachers to go to conferences, and to observe other classrooms in action. I learn so much in these settings.  They invigorate me and give me a million ideas about what I can do to strengthen my curriculum.”

In addition, she asserts, “It would be wonderful for our District and MBEF to incentivize National Board Certification.” MBUSD does not currently offer an incentive for National Board Certification, while some neighboring districts do.  The new MBUSD Teacher Evaluation system is based on the rigorous standards of the National Board. Being a National Board Certified teacher is one of the highest honors a teacher can earn, and it involves an intense application process describing your teaching and analyzing video tape of your teaching, this gives candidates “a lot of feedback and room for self reflection that nurtures the best in teaching”. Maggie is currently working towards National Board Certification.

John Jackson was selected as the 2015 California Middle School Principal of the Year after being nominated for the honor by Pacific School Principal Kim Linz. The entire process has taken 10 months. Like Ms. Mabery, Mr. Jackson will now go to the next round to be considered for the national title.

Mr. Jackson has a humble and quiet presence. When asked why he thinks he was selected for this honor, he says, “It’s not just about me. This is recognizing a continuation of the work of all the teachers, parents and students who are working hard in our schools every day. I just happen to be the person who is getting the award.”

But anyone can see that Mr. Jackson is an exceptional leader. He is always looking to improve and make changes for the better. He explains, “We are not just sitting here and saying we are doing well because our test scores are high. We are implementing new programs all of the time. We are able to do this because of all the support from parents and teachers.” When Mr. Jackson comes up with a new idea, “somehow, whether it’s MBEF, the PTA or the District, we find a way to make things happen. It’s not like this in other districts I’ve seen.”

When asked what he enjoys most about his career, Mr. Jackson replies, “first and foremost, I enjoy the kids”. This is easy to see if you walk through the campus with Mr. Jackson, as they all smile and greet him as he walks by, often giving him compliments on his ties. And he has somehow managed to memorize the names of almost all of his 1,529 students.

When asked what advice he has for other educators or leaders, Jackson explains, “I think I’m good at finding what people are best at, and helping them to go forward with it.” He shares a coaching analogy. “It’s hard to be a high school coach, because you get what you get. You can’t recruit people like in the pros. So, you can’t impose your style on your team. You have to be flexible and change with what you are given in any moment.  Then you have to figure out how to strengthen your team.” It is clear that Jackson has been able to build a strong team at Manhattan Beach Middle School, and that our students are thriving as a result. It is also wonderful to see his two protégés Kim Linz and Dr. Toni Brown implementing these strategies at Pacific and Pennekamp respectively.

Mr. Jackson and Ms. Mabery have excellent company at MBUSD. My daughter is the beneficiary of one of these excellent educators this year. Last Sunday night my daughter said, “I can’t wait to get back to school tomorrow so we can start Writer’s Workshop”. Her teacher had built up so much excitement about Writer’s Workshop and her new first grade reading box that my daughter wasn’t sad about the end of a fun-filled weekend, she was looking forward to learning.

I told my daughter to be sure to tell her teacher how excited she is, and to thank her for this. I also made sure to stop by to thank her teacher. For, as we all know, teaching can often be an exhausting career, and few things can be more encouraging to these amazing people who nurture and inspire our children than a little gratitude. Please take a moment to express your gratitude to the teachers who have changed your children’s lives.

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