By Dan Weisberg
Any day you can make a great teacher happy is a good day.
Last week, we made a big deal over four superb teachers. We rounded up reporters, mayors, school leaders, family members and many more to surprise them in their classrooms. I had the great honor of presenting the Fishman Prize for Superlative Classroom Practice to one of those great teachers, Stephanie Sun.
Stephanie teaches writing to fifth graders in Brownsville, Brooklyn. It doesn’t take more than five minutes watching her interact with her students to know she was born to be a teacher. Known as “Ms. Sunshine,” Stephanie brings tremendous joy to the classroom, giving her students endless high-fives, smiles and praise. But she also has very high expectations and pushes them to master rigorous material.
I knew Stephanie was something special when I read this in her Fishman Prize application: “As incoming fourth graders, my students say their favorite subject is writing because it’s easy. When they leave my classroom as rising sixth graders, they still say writing is their favorite subject—but I bet they say that because it was challenging.” This combination of joy and rigor is powerful: Stephanie’s students achieve proficiency rates in English at nearly four times the rate of students in the surrounding neighborhood.
As I took the short subway ride to Brownsville, I thought about my seventh grade social studies teacher, Mr. Petrozellis. He was another teacher who pushed his students hard but made sure we had fun in his classroom. I still remember, as an average student going through the usual adolescent uncertainty and then some, getting a paper back from Mr. P with the comment “masterful” at the top. It gave me a boost of confidence as I was trying to figure out whether I could be a good student. I also remember giving a lazy answer to a question in class that year and Mr. P fixing me with a hard stare and growling. Literally growling. It took a few days for me to get back into his good graces, and I was motivated for the rest of the year to put real thought into my work.
Did Mr. P ever get acknowledged for the great work he did with students who came to him at all levels of preparedness? Did anyone give him a trophy? Buy him a beer? Maybe, but I doubt it. For decades, Mr. P brought the same high expectations, passion and creativity to his work every year. Thank goodness for the inner fire that motivated him despite what I imagine must have felt like a lack of reward and recognition at times.
This lack of recognition is part of the reason TNTP created the Fishman Prize in the first place (and named it after another great teacher, Shira Fishman). Great teachers like Mr. P shouldn’t have to rely solely on their own intrinsic motivation to keep them going day in and day out. They ought to have a big deal made over them—they are doing one of the most important and most difficult jobs in the country and doing it extremely well.
In Brownsville, Stephanie was in the middle of teaching her students when we busted into her classroom: a guy in a suit carrying a framed award (me), her boss’s boss’s boss, Doug McCurry, the co-CEO of Achievement First, her parents, her brother, her boyfriend (all carrying bouquets) and a large entourage. And while I have no doubt that, award or no, Stephanie would bring the same passion to her work next week, next month and next year, I think it’s safe to say she was elated to be recognized on this particular day.
I explained to her students that their “Ms. Sunshine” would spend the summer working with us at TNTP along with three other outstanding teachers. She would travel around the country to meet other teachers, school leaders and elected officials, and write a paper with her insights into great teaching. And she’d get a check for $25,000 to spend any way she chooses. (One astute young man pointed out that since Ms. Sun was getting the award in part due to student results, shouldn’t they get a share of the prize money? A pizza party was promised.)
The scene inside Stephanie’s classroom was breathtaking, and watching her students soak it all in made me wonder how many of those young scholars were inspired to become teachers themselves. How many of them went home that day thinking that teachers not only have an important job, but if you’re a great teacher, you can be treated like a star? I don’t know the answer to that, but I will say if even one of those students becomes the next Stephanie Sun, that subway ride to Brownsville will have been one of the best trips I’ve ever taken.
Dan Weisberg is CEO at TNTP.