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National Teacher of the Year energizes, inspires thousands of educators

Iowa high school teacher emphasizes a ‘lead learner’ philosophy to engage students

NEW ORLEANS - July 05, 2010 -

Sarah Brown Wessling, the 2010 National Teacher of the Year, fired up the 9,000 educators attending the National Education Association (NEA) Representative Assembly today with a passionate speech that emphasized her belief that teachers must be the lead learners in their own classrooms. That means teachers who are listening, interacting, and working side by side with their students, she said.

“Lead learning doesn’t determine the worth of a moment, day or endeavor based on the answers,” she said, “but rather on the questions that drive us to wonder.” Wessling is a tenth- through twelfth-grade English teacher at Johnston High School in Johnston, Iowa.
“Wessling is a shining example of how teachers can transform the way students feel about learning,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “She inspires her students by the way she inserts real-life, relevant examples into her English lessons. She motivates them to reach their maximum potential.”

In her speech to delegates, Wessling reflected on her childhood days of playing school. “We decided who would be the teacher or the student, we put each other in rows, we gave assignments and we gave grades.  We told some students they were good and others that they were bad. As a teacher looking back on this, I’m kind of mortified…. Is that really what school is all about—keeping order, creating systems, giving assignments, getting grades?”

Playing the game of school is not the same as teaching, she said. “I think our system is playing the game of school,” adding that teachers have the collective responsibility to transcend that game. “We need to create places where students thrive because of the system, not in spite of it,” she said.  “Our students are worth the kind of learning that’s worth doing.”

Earlier this year, Wessling was honored by President Barack Obama at a White House ceremony where he praised her innovative teaching style and dedication to mentoring others new to the profession. Wessling is known for using out-of-the-box techniques such as incorporating songs, film storyboards, popular public service announcements and Facebook pages into her curriculum. She instills hope in students who have given up, and she fosters their curiosity for learning by engaging them in non-traditional assignments that she says “can make the words of a philosopher, dead for two millennia, relevant to their lives now and by celebrating any small moment of progress.”

The National Teacher of the Year program, a project of the Council of Chief State School Officers, is the oldest and most prestigious award program for teachers. Sponsored by the ING Foundation and Target, it focuses public attention on teaching excellence.

Please visit to access a transcript of Ms. Wessling’s remarks.

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The National Education Association is the nation’s largest professional organization, representing
3.2 million elementary and secondary teachers, higher education faculty, education support professionals, school administrators, retired educators and students preparing to become teachers.

CONTACT: Christiana Campos  (202) 251-5954