For national Teacher of the Year Sarah Brown Wessling,
each day brings a new opportunity to learn
Ten years ago, in the first year of her current position as a high school English teacher in Johnston, Iowa, Sarah Brown Wessling was having a horrible time. It might have been her vision of the perfect classroom colliding with the reality of the classroom. It might have been that she shared her room with an uber-popular teacher to whom students brought little gifts and invitations to slumber parties. It might have been that she felt tired all the time.
Whatever the reason, Wessling’s teacher evaluations from her students had just come back with less than desirable results. And she chose to read them at school.
“I wasn’t quite prepared to be confronted with the truth of what had been going on in the classroom, and I started to cry,” she said about that day. “I didn’t want anyone to see me cry, so I climbed under the desk because there wasn’t anyplace else for me to go.”
From her hiding place Wessling reached for the phone and called her mother, who listened to her blubber and then asked the million-dollar question: Well, are you going to come out from under the desk?
The young teacher knew, right then, that she had to make a choice. She could stay under the desk, or she could come out and confront the rest of her life.
“There was so much truth in that moment,” she said.
“I think what happens to teachers is they start to build walls. They start to protect themselves, and then their agendas become more important than the learning of the students. So, for me, getting out from under the desk really means paying attention to my students. It means knowing that every day is not going to be perfect and that on more days than not the most important thing I do is get out from underneath the desk and do better tomorrow and heed the wisdom of my students.”
‘I was meant to be a teacher’
Sarah Brown Wessling grew up in Winterset, Iowa. Becoming a teacher was never a choice, she says, but rather a realization of something she’d always known.
She tried on a few different majors at Iowa State: broadcast journalism, psychology, philosophy, literature. Finally, it dawned on her that she could pursue all of those disciplines
at once – as a teacher.
Wessling earned her bachelor’s degree in English education in 1998 and later followed up with a master’s in 2003.
“Sarah came in to the English education program just like everybody else,” said ISU English professor Bob Tremmel. “But even in that early stage she really did stand out. She asked all the right questions and had an incredible understanding of people.”
When she set off for the teaching world, she first went to Cedar Falls (Iowa) High School and then to Johnston High School.
Teaching is hard work, she learned. And it takes practice.
“Here is what I know about being in Iowa: We grow things,” she said. “Teachers are not born; they are grown. There’s a lot of practice involved.”
Wessling’s teaching philosophy is learner-centered. She maintains that every person who walks into her classroom becomes part of the learning process, whether that person is a teacher or an administrator or a student or a member of the community. When you come into that space, you walk through the door ready to learn.
For Wessling, the learning process is sacred ground. Her teaching does not end in the classroom. It spills out to conferences she holds with students about their writing, in the individual feedback she provides to them (often through podcasts and recordings), and in the before- and after-school hours. She draws from pop culture and media to make language arts interesting.
“Sarah has a unique way to make sure what she teaches connects to all kids she works with,” says her principal, Bruce Hukee. “She seeks out students to see how they want to learn.”
In the spotlight
In the fall of 2009, Wessling was honored with the 2010 Iowa Teacher of the Year Award, putting her in an elite class of educators nationwide.
And then, in the spring of 2010, she got a phone call that left her speechless.
Wessling was at home with her three children (6-year-old Evan, 4-year-old Lauren, and infant Zachary). It was spring break.
“I had the baby in one hand and the other kids were on the way out the door because we were going to the park,” Wessling says.
The phone rang, and the voice on the other end of the line informed her that she had been chosen the National Teacher of the Year.
“Well, I was stunned,” Wessling remembers. “I was really, completely inarticulate. I was very overwhelmed and humbled and honored.”
That phone call set off a series of public and private events, including the formal announcement of Wessling as National Teacher of the Year by President Barack Obama in the Rose Garden on April 29. She was also invited to Vice President Joseph Biden’s home, attended a black-tie dinner for all the state teachers of the year (at which she and her husband, Tim, shared a table with secretary of education Arne Duncan among other top national educational leaders), and appeared on CNN.
Since then, she has been invited to present keynote addresses and lectures, respond to state and federal educational initiatives, attend a wide variety of events, participate on leadership panels, and meet with policy-makers and industry leaders. The Council of Chief State School Officers, the group that oversees the National Teacher of the Year Program, estimates that Wessling will attend more than 150 events before audiences ranging from
a few hundred to several thousand.
“It’s been an incredible learning curve,” Wessling said. “I’m learning something new every day, and I’m being challenged to look at education through a slightly different lens.”
Though the National Teacher of the Year recognition has taken Wessling away from her classroom for a year, it is the classroom experience that is closest to her heart. She says she measures her success by the success of her students.
“I’ve long known that my story of learning and teaching has never really been about me,” she says. “My contributions are my students.”
“You walk into her classroom, and there’s this sense of excitement. She’s so passionate about what she’s teaching,” says Leah Bowman, a senior at Johnston High School who was in Wessling’s AP English class last year. “She pushes us to be our best. I experience reading and critical thinking in a completely different way now.”
Through her students’ questions and motivations and passion, magical moments can sometimes happen in the classroom, Wessling says.
“I think magical moments are often very ordinary. I think sometimes we assume that magical moments are going to be Hollywood versions of magical moments. But for me, magical moments can be when [a student] finally lifts his head up off the desk because of something that we said or did. All of a sudden something was relevant to him. I think that, going back to the idea of coming out from under the desk, the moments where students engage and where they learn are the magical moments.”