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Exceptional Teachers: What It Takes to Make a Difference

16 Sep 2014 by Emily Doyle
At Teachstone, we have the privilege of interacting with teachers all the time. Sometimes, that means supporting teachers through MyTeachingPartner Coaching; other times, that means filming a day in a teacher’s classroom to capture effective moments.

Since we know so many amazing teachers, we’ve decided to begin featuring the cream of the crop! In this series, I’ll be reaching out to exceptional teachers, interviewing them, and sharing the highlights of my conversations. I think you’ll agree—these teachers are nothing short of inspiring!

Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Gissendanner, a 5th grade science and reading teacher:

Tell me a little about yourself.

I’m a career changer … I started teaching at 40. Most teachers have only been teachers, but it can be an advantage to bring a different career to the classroom. It’s interesting the way you can connect something like sales, or customer relations, or decision-making to teaching.

What advice would you give to a teacher who’s just starting out?

Take time to find a way to see things from a different perspective. Watch your kids from the back of the room, have another teacher teach your kids—don’t isolate yourself. Take time to reflect and see the big picture—you won’t always be right, but you can learn from mistakes and be better next time.

I’ve watched footage from your classroom. It’s clear you have a high degree of regard for your students, treating them as thinkers and individuals. How do you balance giving students the freedom and autonomy they need while still maintaining structure and getting things done?

I have a strong backbone of structure in my classroom from the get-go, but within that structure, there’s lots of freedom. There are things that could be faster for me to do for the kids, but that doesn’t teach them to learn to be adults. I tell kids, “I never get upset if you do something wrong and make a mistake, as long as you try.” Kids want to be adults, I’m not sure why, but they do. They look up to adults. You don’t want them trying to please you; you want them to be independent and practice being an adult. I’m brutally honest with my kids and they appreciate that … in return they tell me everything, including things they don’t like about the class. If it’s negative, they learn we need to fix them or recognize what doesn’t work, but it’s important to understand different perspectives.

What’s your favorite thing about being a teacher?

The variety, the surprises … you never know what’s coming next. The kids! Kids are more fun than adults a lot of the time! They have honest questions and positive attitudes, and that attitude rubs off on you!

How do you get kids excited to learn?

Engagement is contagious. Passion from the teacher carries to the kids. Projects must be challenging enough that it slows them down and forces them to work—at the same time, tasks must be doable, kids can’t get so discouraged that they give up. I always return children’s questions with another question. I give them hints, but not the answer. Getting kids engaged is not something you do in one lesson; it’s part of the atmosphere you build.

Mr. Gissendanner was kind enough to let us film his classroom last year, and you can find many exceptional moments, like this one, in the Upper Elementary CLASS Video Library.

Mr. Gissendanner goes with the flow of students’ ideas and gives them genuine responsibilities during a cleanup.

Do you know any exceptional teachers? Tell us about what makes them special in the comments below!

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