05/22/2014 09:49 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Meet the Fishman Winners!


This post was originally published on the TNTP Blog.

We’re in a very good mood around here at TNTP. That’s because this week, we have the honor and privilege of celebrating great teachers in a special way: by awarding the Fishman Prize for Superlative Classroom Practice to four phenomenal educators who have demonstrated extraordinary success in schools serving low income families. In addition to receiving $25,000 each, the winners will take part in a six-week summer residency with TNTP, during which they’ll meet with education policymakers and leaders across the country and collaborate with each other on a collection of essays focused on their best teaching strategies.

Choosing the four winners has never been tougher. This year’s 826 applicants were especially noteworthy for their incredible diversity. They came from 46 states plus the District of Columbia, from district schools and charter schools in big cities, quiet suburbs, rural country towns and everything in-between. We saw a large increase in early childhood and elementary teachers in the applicant pool, alongside arts teachers and physical education teachers, new teachers and 30-year veterans.

It has been inspirational and humbling to read the applications of so many dedicated and insightful teachers, and a delight to watch them in action. That’s why, in addition to unveiling our winners this week, we’re also celebrating the finalists, semi-finalists and “Honor Roll.”

Yesterday, we surprised the winners by visiting their classrooms around the country to announce the news. There were many stunned faces, cheering students and even some happy tears. We’ll share more photos and stories from announcement day in an upcoming post. But today we want to introduce you to this year’s Fishman winners through the eyes of some of the folks who work closest with them every day. The following descriptions of this year’s winners come from the school leaders and colleagues who served as their references. Wouldn’t you like to work with these teachers?

Steven Sanders

9th-12th Grade Band, UIC College Prep, Chicago, IL

When Steve poses a question, no matter how challenging, nearly every hand in the room goes up. He works hard to build a classroom culture where kids feel safe to "fail" and know that taking risks is part of the learning process.

Steve cares deeply about all of his students and has incredibly high expectations for their behavior and musicality. Unlike in many high school music programs, most students who enter Steve’s band class have never played an instrument or read music before. Steve takes beginning musicians—who may not even love music—and turns them into advanced band players who can read music, understand complex levels of music theory, and learn to love and appreciate what music can do for them. He builds strong relationships with students, capitalizing on their strengths and senses of humor. At the same time, he never (ever) reduces his expectations. He knows that a strong classroom culture and a rigorous curriculum lead to higher quality learning and engagement. Year after year, Steve's students continue to grow and sound better, and he has led his students to earn first and second place rankings in city and statewide competitions.  

Steve has quickly grown into an exceptional educator because he loves teaching and constantly reflects upon his own teaching practice. He frequently asks for feedback and creates new ways to drive his own development, like videotaping himself to watch how students respond to his instruction. Steve is most definitely a rock star teacher, and we’re lucky to have him at UIC College Prep!

--Audrey Borling, Dean of Instruction, UIC College Prep


Laura Strait

4th- 5th Grade, Aspire ERES Academy, Oakland, CA

Laura’s classroom feels like a symphony. Whenever I step inside, I immediately feel the magical buzz of learning. Every student is deeply engaged and working hard. Technically, Laura is conducting—she is the one who has differentiated the assignments and modeled clear, high expectations—but it is the students who have taken complete ownership. Laura’s students facilitate the classroom routines and procedures. It is the students who evaluate each other’s work using a rubric and offer specific feedback about how to improve. It is the students who ask each other thought-provoking questions during their small group discussions. And it is the students who set personalized academic goals for themselves and strive every day to meet them.

Laura is that teacher who transforms lives. It doesn’t matter if a student enters years behind in reading or years ahead in math; Laura works relentlessly to challenge every scholar. Laura tailors lessons and units to meet the individual needs of all twenty-six students in her classroom. As a result, at the end of the year, every student leaves Laura’s room feeling invested, adored, inspired and pushed.

And yet despite her tremendous accomplishments, Laura is never satisfied. Her class can outperform an entire school district, and inevitably, her response will be: How can we do even better next time? When Laura read the Aspire teaching rubric, she devoured it and immediately created a detailed action plan about how to improve her teaching practice to reach the highest level of effectiveness. She is the type of person who attends a workshop and implements all of the new ideas in her classroom the very next day.

Laura models a love of learning every single day in her classroom, so it is no surprise that all of her students reflect this same energy, determination, enthusiasm and humility in all they do. As Laura would never admit, she’s “simply the best!”

--Emily Murphy, Principal, Aspire ERES Academy


 Michael Towne

10th-12th Grade Physics & Engineering, Citrus Hill High School, Perris, CA

Mr. Towne has a special gift. He understands—more than any other teacher I have worked with—how to engage students and motivate them to demonstrate their understanding of the subject matter. He gives every student the necessary confidence to master the content by first modeling and then empowering them to teach each other. Mr. Towne is an inspiration for all his students because he applauds their capabilities while also identifying weaknesses. His concern with making a connection with his students allows for honest feedback, resulting in enormous academic growth. Mr. Towne motivates all students to reach their potential and, in many cases, pushes them past their limits. 

He also focuses on providing equal access to the most rigorous courses by never denying any student an opportunity. He encourages all students to take his physics class—one of the most difficult subjects in the school—and he helps them be successful.  

You cannot have a conversation in the community about our school without being asked about Mr. Towne. Students enter as ninth graders hoping to take a class with him because they’ve heard about him through siblings, friends or parents. Mr. Towne becomes like another parent for most of his students. He has a rapport with students unlike anyone else, and students who take his class leave with a resource available to them for life—countless alumni return every year to seek his advice as they continue their educational journeys. This kind of connection with students is rare, and it’s a big reason for his success with all the students who walk into his classroom.

--Juan Cabral, Principal, Citrus Hill High School


Kelly Zunkiewicz

9th-12th Grade Precalculus and AP Calculus, Dr. Earl J. Lennard High School, Ruskin, FL

It’s rare that I walk into Kelly’s classroom and find her sitting down. She’s constantly moving from group to group and questioning her students as they work to explore the lesson of the day. The thing that always grabs my attention is the learning community that she has developed in her classroom. By setting the bar high for her students and letting them struggle through problems together, she has helped them grow as learners. There are students who as freshmen were quiet and not confident in their abilities. Now as seniors in her AP Calculus class, they work collaboratively and act as leaders in the classroom.

Students are never late to Kelly’s class because they know they’ll be missing out on something. And they certainly do not leave when the bell rings if she is not done teaching or giving out an assignment. Because Kelly shows her students how much she cares and values their education on a daily basis, they want to achieve both for themselves and to make her proud. The high expectations she has for her students and the academic habits she has helped them build have led them to become better students in all their subjects. 

Kelly is competitive; she and her students can always be better. Each year, she raises her expectations of herself and her students and then finds a way to meet them. She is willing to try new strategies that she learns at trainings, through research, or from conversations with other teachers. If it doesn’t go well the first time, she seeks out advice on how it could be done better. 

--Diana Wohlgamuth, Math Department Chair and Coach, Dr. Earl J. Lennard High School

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