TEA News Releases Online
Aug. 19, 2010
Student-centered teachers named finalists
for 2011 Teacher of the Year award
AUSTIN - Six outstanding Texas educators who have a combined 127 years of teaching experience have been chosen as finalists in the Texas Teacher of the Year program, the Texas Education Agency announced today.
The six finalists – three elementary and three secondary school educators – were selected from the 40 regional Teachers of the Year from each of the state’s 20 education service center areas. The finalists will now contend for the honor of being named Texas Elementary Teacher of the Year and Texas Secondary Teacher of the Year.
The finalists for the 2011 Texas Elementary Teacher of the Year are:
- Rachael Brunson, a teacher at Great Oaks Elementary School in the Round Rock Independent School District;
- Daniel Leija, a fifth-grade teacher at Esparza Elementary School in San Antonio’s Northside ISD;
- Donalyn Miller, a language arts teacher at Trinity Meadows Intermediate School in Keller ISD.
The finalists for the 2011 Texas Secondary Teacher of the Year are:
- Jane Dunn, a chemistry teacher at Little Cypress-Mauriceville High School in the Little Cypress-Mauriceville Consolidated ISD;
- Beth Huckabee, a biology teacher at Flour Bluff High School in the Flour Bluff ISD;
- Melissa Wafer-Cross, an English teacher at Lubbock High School in the Lubbock ISD.
The winners will be announced at an Oct. 15 luncheon at the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center at 1900 MLK Blvd. on the University of Texas-Austin campus.
The top two teachers will receive a $5,000 cash prize, a technology package valued at more than $16,500, a computer, a trophy, a travel allowance and other mementos. A $500 cash prize is awarded to the remaining 38 regional Teachers of the Year.
“Our 40 regional Teachers of the Year have served Texas in the classroom for a combined 541 years. Their record of service to our children is remarkable. The newcomers and veterans alike show a commitment to lifetime learning. They are constantly looking for new ways to present material and to incorporate the latest developments into their classrooms,” said Commissioner of Education Robert Scott.
“The six finalists for the top award are those kinds of teachers that students remember long after they have left their classroom. Their impact has been far reaching; their excitement contagious. On behalf of the Texas Education Agency and parents across this state, I thank you for your commitment to our children,” he said.
In their award application, the six finalists talked about their background, their community involvement, philosophy of teaching and their thoughts about current education trends.
Elementary education finalists
As a child, Round Rock’s Rachael Brunson found school to be a place of refuge from her impoverished home life. “I can say, without reservation, that I would not have achieved nearly as much in my life without the encouragement of a handful of teachers who looked past my tattered exterior and found my spark. Why teaching?” Now having taught for 13 years, she says, “I want to be the person who ignites their spark. I am teaching and motivating children to be change agents in the world.”
Brunson incorporates service learning into her classroom. During the last school year, her class developed a water conservation project during which they researched issues related to water such as availability, pollution, water treatment and conservation. She also organized the MLK Day of Service on her campus in which more than 200 participants helped to beautify the Great Oaks school grounds and made special pillows for patients at the Dell Children’s hospital.
Daniel Leija of Northside is a former Air Force veteran and licensed vocational nurse, who says “preparing for combat situations and war zones was nothing compared to facing 21 kindergartners my first morning as a teacher.” But with help from a mentor teacher, he and his students flourished that first year. Now having taught for a decade, he says, “My classroom serves as an oasis for students of all grade levels to enjoy. Science artifacts and pets abound throughout the room for students to explore and handle.”
Around his school, Leija is known as “Dan, Dan, the Science Man.” Each Monday, he conducts science experiments that are broadcast to classrooms all over his campus. He says he always reinforces the connection between a concept and real-world applications so students can relate to the learning. When asked what he does for a living, Leija says, in part, “I am a teacher. I have answered my nation’s call to redefine the future. I am a coach, mentor, counselor and friend, fully prepared to take the necessary steps to make each student’s dream become a reality.”
Like Leija, Donalyn Miller took a circuitous route before becoming a teacher, having worked for a decade as a hotel and restaurant manager and bookkeeper. She has now taught eight years and has written a book called The Book Whisperer, which describes her beliefs about teaching reading. To encourage reading over the summer, Miller began Trinity Meadows’ annual Book Swap in which students bring books they have finished and are willing to swap for other books.
Miller says, “While my professional training prepared me for many things – designing lessons, implementing best practices, working with other teachers – it never prepared me for the fierce, territorial love and concern I feel for the children in my care. These children – brilliant, loving, flawed, hurting and needy – come into my classroom every year….I am forever, their teacher.”
Secondary education finalists
Jane Dunn of Little Cypress-Mauriceville says, “As a teacher, my job is to prepare students for their future by providing them with a first class education.” As a high school chemistry teacher, she can see some immediate results of her work. A few years ago, 27 honor graduates were introduced during the high school graduation ceremony and 16 of those had chosen to pursue a chemistry-related major in college. “This indicated to me that I had been successful in at least giving them the confidence needed to take another chemistry course and at most making them consider chemistry as a career choice,” she said.
During her 22-year teaching career, Dunn has found that “when a student is convinced that a teacher really cares about their well-being, they are much more motivated to learn.”
Beth Huckabee of Flour Bluff still loves her job even after 39 years of teaching. “I love watching the ‘light go on’ when a student understands a difficult Physics concept or makes a connection with previous material in Biology or Anatomy and Physiology. I love that each day and each student is different. After 39 years, I still get up every morning looking forward to going to school, and I am a little sad in May when the school year ends.”
“In science, we are seeing more alternatively certified teachers. Often they are hired at the last minute and are not prepared emotionally or educationally to teach high school science. As a veteran teacher and head of the science department, I believe it is my duty to mentor these new teachers and help them adjust to the rigors of teaching,” Huckabee said.
Melissa Wafer-Cross has taught for 35 years, working in high schools, education service centers, the Peace Corps and the Lubbock County jail. “The men and women who really made me a teacher…were the inmates of the Lubbock County Jail. For two years, I taught the GED classes at the jail; those classes were microcosms of many classrooms I’ve been in over the years. I learned to adapt to a classroom with students of differing abilities, to listen honestly and give relevant feedback; to assess student goals and move forward with a plan.”
Wafer-Cross teaches literature. “I believe that exploring the stories of those who live near us and those who live far away creates a bond between us that is stronger than our differences. That is why I teach literature. I understand that my English class may be the last English class some of the students take during their school careers, so it is important to me that they learn to express their ideas cogently, to listen open-mindedly, to respond intelligently, and to write clearly.”