Four teachers were named finalists for the Arkansas Teacher of the Year Award on Thursday. The governor and education commissioner had praise for the profession, in particular teachers in STEM fields, at a ceremony at the state Capitol. Some educators expressed afterward a belief that the Republican administration’s policies are sometimes contrary to teacher expectation on decision making authority.
2016 State Finalists:
Meghan Ables: 11th Grade English/Literacy, Stuttgart School District
Brenda Galliher: 8th Grade Science, Nashville School District
Stephanie Goodman: 6th Grade Mathematics, Hot Springs School District
Michael Rogers: 9th-12th Grade Agriculture, Siloam Springs School District
Governor Asa Hutchinson gave a fond remembrance of an Algebra teacher that pushed him when he wasn’t interested and jested that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is struggling to keep up with Arkansas after plans were announced in NYC to pursue greater access to computer coding.
Hutchinson has successfully championed legislation opening-up computer science courses to high school students in Arkansas. He likened access to the course as economic development, as he did teaching.
“While I focus on economic development we all know that you can not achieve the results that we want in Arkansas in terms of fostering economic development and job creation without being successful at education.” said Hutchinson.
Spencer Sutterfield teaches drama and theatre at Parkview Arts and Sciences High School in the Little Rock School District. Sutterfield was one of 15 regional finalists. He too believes that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics courses are important but he doesn’t want the arts to be overlooked.
Sutterfield said art plays an role in nurturing and enriching the minds of students and is also economically valuable.
“I really believe it’s the fusion of the arts and the sciences together that creates what some call STEAM. It pushes people into technological advances with also a creative edge. The Apple corporation would be a perfect example of an organization that utilizes both art or artistry, and technology,” said Sutterfield.
Seven of the regional finalists taught in STEM classes, four in English/arts, two in social sciences, one in general grade school and one in agriculture. The group was comprised of nine women and six men, all but one was white.
Education Commissioner Johnny Key said after remarks that any effort to improve Arkansas’s education system has to have quality teaching at its core. He said the finalists in the room were an encouraging reminder that the state’s education system is breeding some success.
“These are the teachers who happened to be recognized today but we know there are other teachers out there doing as important work. That’s what it’s going to take, not a program out of the Department of Education or the Legislature. It’s what happens in the classroom, what happens in school buildings,” said Key.
The commissioner also pointed the importance of ingraining respect for teaching as a cultural and family value. Tim West, the father of finalist Stephanie Goodman, said much the same.
“She went to Henderson and wanted to be a teacher. My mother was a teacher and so growing up in a teacher’s home…I kind of had my doubts because teachers aren’t always appreciated but they persevere and dedicate their lives to teaching young children and we’re blessed to have them,” said West.
The role of the state Department of Education in altering decades-long contracts struck between teachers, administrators, and locally elected school boards is a disconcerting example for the president of the state’s largest teachers’ union of how praise can fall short. Brenda Robinson with the Arkansas Education Association said she’s disappointed that teachers in the LRSD may lose a host of bargaining rights.
“It’s sad that the state Department of Education would want to silence the voices of educators and not give them their collective bargaining rights. I come from a local that lost bargaining rights as well, the Pulaski County Special School District. I know the feeling, and it kind of just diminishes that honor and that respect,” said Robinson.
Both the PCSSD and the LRSD have been under state control as a result of action by the state Department of Education. On Wednesday members of the dissolved school board in Little Rock rallied with 70 people at the LRSD administrative building in a so-called “Wake for Democracy” protesting the state-takeover.
The district was taken over because six of its 40-plus schools were designated as being in “academic distress” under a set of tests the state no longer uses. Among the targets of local activists is the Walton Family Foundation. Former board members have characterized it as a moneyed force that threatens to privatize school districts and dismantle some traditional public school systems.
A representative of the Walton Family Foundation joined the presentation at the Capitol. The group is listed at the bottom of a handbill about the award given out by the state Department of Education as a partner along with SMART Technologies, Frances Flower Shop, Discount Trophies of Arkansas, and Sam's Wholesale Club.
All 15 regional finalists received a framed certificate and women were also given flowers.
Kim Davis with the WFF emphasized linking education to economic outcomes.
“I’d like to personally thank the governor for his leadership and helping to connect education with economic development.” Davis went on to say, “I want to thank you governor for your leadership, I want to thank you as well Commissioner Key. I want to thank you all for helping us do more than you realize.”
A selection committee for the Arkansas Teacher of the Year award will visit the classrooms of each of the four finalists in the coming weeks with a final award announcement expected late this fall.