What distinguishes an outstanding teacher? Is it diligence or knowledge, creativity or charisma, authority or compassion, or all of the above? Is the great teacher exceptionally talented or simply determined to go that extra mile? While there are as many different teaching techniques as there are styles of learning, the recent recipients of Humanities Texas’s Outstanding Teaching Awards share a number of significant attributes that their peers and students admire.

Our teachers begin the school year by establishing a safe and happy but challenging classroom environment. As students learn to listen to each other with respect and understanding, participation increases. Maureen Gavin, a sixth grade teacher at Cleburne Eubanks Intermediate School in South Lake, formalized this process by adopting an innovative classroom management philosophy that emphasizes kindness, individual accountability, and engagement. Refugio Middle School teacher Tom Jaggard reinforces a positive atmosphere by greeting every student each day with a smile and a handshake.

These teachers also devise imaginative ways to make their classes experiential, enriching readings with hands-on activities. National History Day projects foster a love of learning, while class trips, oral history interviews, and virtual travels bring history and geography to life. Terry Stewart, a Spanish teacher at Decatur High School, immerses his students in the art, culture, and history of the Spanish-speaking world. He organizes trips to Spain for his students and others in the community, while his flamenco dance team competes in San Antonio annually. Jennifer Atkinson collaborates with an American Legion post to organize “Take a Vet to School Day” so her students at Metz Elementary School in Austin can learn from local veterans while honoring them.

The teachers pursue their curricula with infectious energy. They cultivate not only “book knowledge” but an active engagement with ideas that sharpens critical thinking skills, writing ability, and oral presentations. The students gain an understanding of how their own world relates to their studies and emerge from the classroom with self-confidence and a love of learning. “If you’re not in this class,” one of Shirlene Bridgewater’s students declared, “you’re missing out!” The students’ spark, once ignited, transforms their performance in all of their courses.

Finally, reaching beyond their classrooms, outstanding teachers touch entire communities. In Wichita Falls, Sherry Cannedy tasks her students at McGaha Academy with sharing each day’s Texas history topic with their parents. Jennifer Atkinson organized the ninetieth anniversary observance of Metz Elementary School—a year-long program involving three generations of graduates in the history they have in common. After reading a novel about the plight of impoverished youth, Maureen Gavin’s students collected money, clothing, and school supplies for underprivileged children in their own community. Rhonda Lemieux, a parent of two of Terry Stewart’s former students, eloquently summarized his impact on Decatur: “Señor Stewart came to our small town years before our town was ready for so much change, but once he was here, we could not get enough of his contagious yearning to learn about other worlds.”

While Humanities Texas recognizes only a few of the state’s talented educators each year, we realize that such honors are not what these teachers seek. Their motivation is neither a framed certificate nor the modest salary they receive. Their profession is their passion; their inspiration the minor miracles they perform daily with the students they love. Their real compensation comes with the words we hear from so many grateful parents: “That teacher changed my child’s life.”

We are pleased to salute the recipients of the Humanities Texas Outstanding Teaching Award.

Do you know of an outstanding humanities teacher in your community? I hope you will nominate him or her for Humanities Texas’s 2009 Outstanding Teaching Awards. More information on the Outstanding Teaching Awards is available on our website.

Above: Eubanks Intermediate School Principal Mark Terry, Congressman Kenny Marchant, award winner Maureen Gavin, and Humanities Texas Executive Director Michael L. Gillette at Ms. Gavin's award presentation. Photo courtesy of the office of Congressman Kenny Marchant. Below: AISD Elementary Social Studies Curriculum Specialist Susan Everett, Congressman Lloyd Doggett, award winner Jennifer Atkinson, and Gillette at Ms. Atkinson's award presentation. Photo courtesy of the office of Congressman Lloyd Doggett.