Some may think that a state Teacher of the Year has all the answers, but Kristal Doolin, Kentucky’s top educator in 2013, knows that the classroom is a hotbed for vexing questions. Fortunately, she understands that the answers to tough questions, including the best ways to implement Common Core State Standards (CCSS), can be found when teachers help teachers, which is exactly what she strives to do as a National Education Association (NEA) Master Teacher.
“All teachers—no matter how heralded or experienced—benefit from listening and learning from other teachers,” explains Doolin. “That’s what I love about the NEA’s Master Teacher program. I’m not only sharing with others what works for me, I am learning too. I’m focusing deeply on my lessons and gaining valuable insights from my Master Teacher coach. The feedback I gain from my coach ensures that NEA teachers gain access to high quality lessons.”
Doolin, a middle school English teacher, is one of 90 NEA-represented teachers participating in the inaugural Master Teacher Program. The initiative was created in response to a groundswell of concern from teachers regarding the shift to CCSS.
According to the “Education School Teachers” report, prior to the standards’ introduction, nearly two-thirds of the nation’s teachers indicated that they felt unprepared for daily work in the classroom. The NEA, led by President Dennis Van Roekel, knew America’s classroom teachers had the expertise, creativity and passion to create model CCSS-aligned lessons to help teachers through the transition, but finding an ideal cyber “home” for the lessons was a bit of a challenge.
The answer was to blend the many talents of NEA-represented teachers with the technical know-how of BetterLesson, an education/technology organization known for providing teacher-created resources to the online education community. The joint initiative resulted in the highest quality of comprehensive lessons available to the online education community and now Master Teachers like Doolin can share math and language arts lessons that align with CCSS. These math and language arts lessons, which will top 16,000 in total by the end of the school year, can be found at cc.BetterLesson.com/mtp.
The lessons, offered through an open platform, set themselves apart from other online lessons by offering a narrative explaining the “how” and “why” of a lesson; using video to show the lesson from start to finish; offering reflections from the Master Teacher; and providing student examples. Each lesson also includes a list of resources that teachers can tap into for further information.
“Kids get excited about a Christmas toy, but their enthusiasm dampens when they realize that batteries aren’t included. With the NEA/BetterLesson site, batteries are included!” says Doolin, explaining what sets the NEA/BetterLesson site apart from other lesson sharing sites. “You have everything you need to create quality lessons. With the other sites, you often only get the bare bones of lesson planning.”
The NEA Master Teacher/BetterLesson partnership will certainly help Master Teachers like Doolin to make their shared core belief that teachers—not administrators or others—must take the leading role in shaping the country’s educational system a reality.
However, the first step out of the gate for them is to meet and exceed CCSS.
While many teachers are having trouble adjusting to CCSS, the standards are “old hat” in Doolin’s home state of Kentucky. In fact, Doolin was involved in ensuring that teachers and parents alike were ready for Common Core.
“I’m a parent of a nine-year-old, so I understand how parents can be nervous about change in the classroom,” says Doolin. “But students rise to expectations.”
She embraces the CCSS language arts goals, including an emphasis on the analysis of informational texts and persuasive writing because, as she says, “These are some of the skills that will ensure that my kids will be successful in high school, in college, and in life.”
Doolin, who has been teaching middle school for 17 years, also supports the change to CCSS because she says that the flexibility of classroom instruction that Common Core provides should go a long toward helping veteran teachers avoid burnout.
“It’s exciting to be involved in a process that is dedicated to fostering a higher level of learning and to encouraging teachers to be creative and passionate about their lesson plans,” explains Doolin.
Doolin, herself, wards off boredom by keeping her lessons fresh and finding inspiration from her students. The Kentucky native says she still gets “blown away” by reading her students’ essays, discussing great books with them, and leading thought-provoking conversations on topics such as the Holocaust and modern day slavery.
However, the real trick to developing creative lesson plans, according to many NEA Master Teachers, is to capture “teachable moments.” Doolin is certainly adept at this, as seen through a lesson plan she created after a recent trip to the NEA in Washington, D.C. While there, Doolin had the opportunity to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where she met a Holocaust survivor. Instinctively she realized that her students would benefit academically and emotionally from the elderly man’s childhood ordeal. She wasted no time in creating a CCSS-aligned lesson that, thanks to the NEA Master Teacher/BetterLesson initiative, will be shared with teachers from across the country.
Certainly, Doolin’s enthusiasm for teaching and her dedication to her students were instrumental in making the past year a time of exceptional career achievement for her. Not only did she become an NEA Master Teacher, but the State Board of Education in
Kentucky also recognized her as Kentucky’s 2013 Teacher of the Year.
Despite the potential to give into the typical Master Teacher’s penchant for perfectionism, Doolin manages to maintain a realistic , and humble, view of her teaching.
“I’m honest with myself and with other teachers. I’m the first to say, ‘this lesson drove me nuts,’ or ‘I think I could have explained this better.’ I’m not perfect, but the effort to do my best is always there,” explains Doolin.
While the recognition is an honor, Doolin has had to contend with a whirlwind of activity. Speaking engagements, media interviews, and meetings have eaten at her time, but never at the expense of her family or her students.
“I’m used to doing 500 things at a time,” says Doolin. “I’m not sure what I’m going to do with myself when my participation in the Master Teacher program ends, but I’m sure I will continue to challenge myself.”
NEA’s Master Teacher Program is one of several NEA initiatives designed to provide concrete solutions for the nation’s 50 million public school students. The Greater Public Schools Fund, established earlier this year, has earmarked $60 million to invest in state and local initiatives to improve student success and strengthen the teaching profession. Over the next decade, the GPS Fund will support innovative projects and ideas, such as peer assistance and review programs, Common Core implementation, teacher mentoring, school safety, and technology, proposed by educators.