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People: PA Teacher Of The Year Michelle Switala

image from www.nstoy.org Another set of answers from a Teacher of the Year -- PA's Michelle Switala, the pride of Pine Richland High School math department.  Check out her answer about her favorite book or movie for a smile.  Shouldn't Stand And Deliver be her favorite movie?

1 -- What is the biggest issue going on in your classroom or school this year (budget cuts, swine flu, schedules, merit pay)?

I think our biggest issue is budget cuts. We have a new superintendent who inherited a little bit of a mess and is now faced with tightening our purse strings. We'll feel it next year when a bunch of retired teachers will not be replaced. We also opted for a contract extension instead of full-blown negotiating in this climate.

2 -- What do you know and think about "race to the top" and other federal education initiatives (for, against, don't know)?

I am really happy that we are thinking about holding districts and teachers accountable, but I am concerned about the penalties for districts who accept money but then don't meet their marks. I think we need to get out in front of teaching and be proactive rather than punitively reactive. Our evaluation of teaching needs to be revamped and professional development should be just as differentiated as our instruction is for our students.

3 -- Has there been any talk of banding together to issue a position paper or policy recommendations like the state teachers did a few years ago?

There has been a little discussion...it seems that teachers of the year tend to do that in the year following their award, when they have more time. Perhaps we'll have time to discuss policy recommendations at our conference in Oregon in August.

4 -- Do you use a blog or twitter? are you planning to blog or twitter about the events in DC? (if so send me your URL or twitter name)

I don't blog or twitter--no time, and I am not interested in the minutia of most people's lives. Does that sound terrible and cold??

5 -- What instructions if any are you given about talking to the press, saying what you think, responding to journalists? (will you get in trouble for answering these questions)?

As teachers, we innately want to answer questions, so I think it is difficult for us to resist or take our time answering the questions of the press. I am personally trying to get used to reporters using just sound bites instead of full arguments, so sometimes I end up sounding not the way I wanted.

6 -- What's the best and worst part of being a state teacher of the year (besides getting emails like this one)?

The best part of being a state teacher of the year is the validation I've received for the choices I've made in the classroom (such as really listening to students and treated them with respect) and the hard work that I do. The worst part is being pulled away from my students to attend conferences or have speaking engagements. I really want to split into two people this year: I want to remain with my students, who are my first priority, and I also want to spread the word about how teachers can meet the needs of all students and how proud I am of the work teachers do in Pennsylvania.

7 -- What's your education pet peeve (in the classroom, in parent meetings, faculty meetings, wherever)?

My pet peeve with students is when I have a capable student who underachieves due to laziness. Our students have a lot of advantages in my district and some students just reject their opportunities. I have a difficult time with teachers who don't seem to like children any more and who convey negativity and frustration in their classrooms.

8 -- What's your favorite education-related book or movie (or song or poem)?

Well, I cry every time I see the end of Mr. Holland's Opus. When Richard Dryfuss walks into that auditorium and picks up the baton to direct the music he has been writing his whole life, I just bawl. I'm a math teacher, so I doubt that will every happen to me (what could happen? An integration contest? I doubt that would draw a huge crowd...)

9 -- Who's your real-life inspiration as an educator? My father is a retired teacher. He is an excellent story-teller and I learned from him that the sell is just as important as the stuff. If you can weave a story around your content, you can get students to listen. Who doesn't like an interesting story?

10 -- What's your prediction for who's going to win national teacher of the year, and why?

Well, I do know that Sarah Brown Wessling from Iowa won, but it must have been a terribly tight race because Megan Allen from Florida, Kelly Kovacic from California, and Rob Stephenson from Michigan are all terrific. I found all of them inspirational and feel honored to be in a class with such fine educators.


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