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Classroom Superheroes

Off to Save the Day

With the fate of the nation’s students in the balance, you defeat those who would destroy public education and leap over obstacles to learning with a single bound…


Dustin Hockman

Edmunds Elementary in Des Moines, Iowa, has a large and unique population. Half of the students are English language learners, and 85 percent of those students are refugees from Africa. The trauma of war at home, in addition to language barriers between teachers, students, and families, is just part of the challenge. Many of them have no education records and their parents have never attended school.

But knowing how much his students need him just inspires teacher Dustin Hockman to work harder.


Photo by Jill Brown

For two and a half years, Hockman has put in 12-hour days at Edmunds Elementary, one of NEA’s priority schools. When he isn’t at school or teaching on the weekend, Hockman can be found taking donated computers to student’s homes, visiting families, teaching adults about resources in Des Moines, and lending a supportive ear to his students.

He works to create a comfortable atmosphere to help ease students’ stress. He makes sure to track their accomplishments, which are so much more meaningful than test scores.

“All of our students here are making progress,” Hockman said. “When I have a student who comes here from a different country who does not speak English at all, and then halfway through the school year I can go into a classroom and see that student raising their hand and talking to the teacher, it shows me they are making great progress.”

—Amy Buffenbarger

Kelli Green

Eighth-grade language arts teacher Kelli Green, a 17-year teaching veteran, was the leading signature-gathering educator in the statewide effort to overturn Ohio's S.B. 5, a law damaging workers’ rights and public education in the state.

Because of Green and many other educators, the Ohio Education Association met its contribution goal for the “We Are Ohio” effort to collect the needed 231,000 signatures. The unpopular and dangerous S.B. 5 will go before voters on the November ballot.

Inspired by her mother, a retired teacher, Green gathered signatures and recruited colleagues to do the same. They canvassed neighborhoods, family gatherings, and sporting events.

“If something is worth worrying or complaining about, then it is worth doing something about,” Green says. But her activism in this effort was in part motivated by a regret. Green says she didn’t do as much as she would have liked to do during the 2010 campaign.

“I made excuses,” she says. “I was too busy to phone bank, or canvas, or do 10-minute meetings. I dropped the ball on that one, and I am paying for it.”

—Cynthia McCabe


Ernest Williams

ESP of the year

“I have worked as an ESP for 23 years in the same school,” said Ernest “Jameel” Wiliams as he graciously accepted the 2011 NEA ESP of the Year award at this year’s Representative Assembly. “Over the years, my job titles and duties have changed, but one thing remained the same—I enjoy what I do.”


Photo by Rick Runion

“I’m often asked by others, what does ESP mean to me, and this is my response. “E” stands for excellence. ESPs demonstrate excellence in our job to provide a quality education to our children. “S” stands for service. ESPs volunteer countless hours to our local, state, and national Association, and to the community where we live. “P” stands for purpose. ESPs have a strong sense of purpose to serve students and advocate for professional respect, professional pay, and professional rights.”

A bus driver and teacher’s assistant from Henderson, N.C., Williams has taught at L.B. Yancey Elementary School for all 23 years of his education career. At Yancey, he has served as a teacher’s assistant with at-risk youth and in the art and music department.

Aside from his work in the classroom, Williams has served his local and state Associations as the first non-certified local unit president advocating for ESPs to become certified teachers. He has also served as the North Carolina ESP president and sits on several state and national boards of directors.

“E. Jameel Williams is an outstanding leader, and he demonstrates the commitment that ESPs bring to help students succeed in school,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel.  “He also exemplifies the strong bridges that ESPs create between their schools and their community.”

—Lance Fuller


Photo by Calvin Knight
Michelle Shearer

Teacher of the year

Michelle Shearer’s ability to awaken the “aspiring scientist within,” apply real world concepts to her lessons, and establish outstanding teacher-student interactions in the classroom earned her the honor of 2011 National Teacher of the Year.

“High school students demand to know, ‘What does chemistry have to do with me?’“ says Shearer. “I display a collection of random household items—sunscreen, laundry detergent, motor oil, shampoo —atop my cabinets as a constant reminder.”

Over the course of her teaching career, this chemistry teacher at Urbana High School in Ijamsville, Maryland, has built a reputation of reaching out to students who have traditionally been underrepresented in scientific fields, including minorities, young women, and students with special needs and disabilities.

“When my students question their ability to succeed, I respond, ‘You can do this. Give yourself time.’ When they debate dropping the course, I look them in the eyes and say, ‘You are an important part of this class. I want you to stay.’ Such simple words have great power.”

“Ultimately, the classroom is my mirror,” she says. “The energy, determination, and sense of purpose my students display reflect what they see in me.”

Barry Crocker

Let‘s go, Stars!” shouts Barry Crocker, crossing the gymnasium floor in a star costume while kids yell and cheer from the bleachers. As the school mascot at Nicholson Elementary in Marietta, Georgia, Barry’s job is to get the students fired up. He’s also head custodian and, many would argue, a superstar of the school.

Barry, who has been a custodian at Nicholson Elementary for over 20 years, is part of the school’s decision-making leadership team and its in-house safety expert. He’s known throughout the school as the “very first responder” in the event of an emergency.

“We all know we are safer with Barry on duty,” says Nicholson teacher, Judith Stephen. They know they’re cleaner, too, which is no small feat for a school surrounded by wetlands.

Barry’s cleaning practices are so effective that he’s been called on by the district supervisor to train custodians in other schools. Barry was also awarded the 2011 NEA Custodial Leaders for Environmental Advocacy Nationwide ( C.L.E.A.N.) award.

—Cindy Long


Photo by Rick Runion
Kenneth Tang

When California teacher Kenneth Tang met his idol, legendary UCLA basketball coach and educator John Wooden, it prompted Tang to rethink his own role in inspiring students. “He told me, ‘You have the responsibility to turn them into responsible members of society.’”

Tang has not forgotten those words in his 16 years of teaching. His fourth- through sixth-grade gifted and talented class, for example, progressed from reading a book about a Holocaust survivor to traveling to Los Angeles’ Holocaust Museum and finally, to raising money for the Save Darfur anti-genocide charity.

“They’re looking to what they can do for the community rather than what they can get out of the community,” Tang says.

Tang serves as a model for his students’ activism in his vocal opposition of California lawmakers slashing education funding. When his school, San Gabriel Elementary, was closed this year, Tang participated in the California Teachers Association’s Pink Friday and State of Emergency campaigns and risked arrest for his peaceful protest efforts. He and his students have been relocated to Rosemeade Elementary.

Tang, whose students call him Mr. Tangledore (after beloved Harry Potter educator Professor Dumbledore), gives students responsibility for helping plan their own lessons and monitor their progress (they even lead their parent-teacher conferences).

“You have to respect them enough to give them responsibility and control,” said Tang, sounding quite a bit like his educator-coach idol.

Cassie Brown

After graduating from Oklahoma State University and running her first half-marathon, Cassie Brown was ready to train for a full 26-miler. But she was also very focused on her first semester as a third-grade teacher. So she found a way to invest in both at the same time.

”I felt like if I put a little more work into it, I could create something better for my students and myself,” says Brown.

To raise money for sorely-needed math supplies and increase awareness of physical fitness, Brown found community members willing to sponsor her marathon and got her students involved, teaching them to calculate donations and track her training schedule. All money raised through the “Endurance for Education” project would finance math supplies for the class.

On a chilly day in early May, Brown blazed through the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon, beating her four-hour goal by two minutes. She shared video and photos with her class, who were excited about the medal she’d won—and thrilled to see the supplies they had helped purchase.

The project was such a success that Brown adopted it for the children at Project Transformation, a summer literacy camp for mainly low-income students. The students will complete and record at least 30 minutes of physical activity daily, write about their experiences, and earn books at the end of the summer.

Brown hasn’t slacked since completing the marathon. In addition to her strict exercise schedule, she recently participated in a workshop about teaching healthy lifestyles and plans to integrate these lessons next year.

— Rebecca Bright


Photo by Ray Tanaka
Lillian Ching

NEA-Retired member

In New Hampshire and Colorado they may have house parties for political candidates. But in Hawaii they have group sign waving on the highway, says Lillian Ching, a retired elementary school teacher from Kaneohe, Hawaii.

“We go out in force and it looks good on the highway,” says Ching, who held many a sign throughout her 38-year teaching career and in retirement. “We’re a small island so everyone has to pass us. It attracts a lot of attention and shows how much support a candidate has.”

Ching has been politically active since the early 1970s, when educators unionized on the island and collective bargaining came into play. She noted there are no local school boards in Hawaii, meaning all the funding for education comes from the state. “Everything we want for the teachers and schools is decided by the governor and the legislature,” she says.

And that has inspired her and many of her colleagues to get involved in politics. Ching has helped campaigns in all sorts of ways—stuffing and stamping envelopes, working phone banks, or writing postcards to friends, relatives, and fellow community group members about particular candidates or issues.

She’s also on the board of directors for the Oahu district of the Hawaii State Teachers Association-Retired and helps run the group’s elections on a statewide basis.

Ching says she still has time to take classes and go on excursions with other fellow retired educators. In fact, it’s not uncommon for about 20 members of her group to get together to help on a campaign, stuffing envelopes, and telling stories.

—Greg Saitz


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