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Family Matters Blog: DOD Teacher Finds Crossroads in U.S. Education

By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 9, 2012 – Common Core Standards, No Child Left Behind, STEM, differentiated teaching, merit pay. Keeping up with the latest policies, ideas and buzz words in education is enough to make parents’ – along with more than a few educators’ -- heads spin.

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Angela Wilson, the Defense Department Education Activity's Teacher of the Year, accepts an award from Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta in the Pentagon, Oct. 2, 2012. DOD photo

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That’s why it was a special treat when I got to speak about these trends with Angela Wilson, who traveled here this week to meet Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and conduct other official business as the Department of Defense Education Activity’s 2012 Teacher of the Year. Read more here.

Wilson has been a key player in national education issues since being awarded the honor last spring, along with other Teacher of the Year winners from each of the states and territories. Since then, Wilson has traveled several times to meet with national education leaders and work on projects to advance teaching, while bringing those experiences back to her seventh-grade language arts and speech students at Vincenza Middle School in Italy.

“It’s been an amazing year,” Wilson said. “It’s really opened my eyes to what’s going on in education around our nation. As teachers, it’s easy to get stuck in what’s happening in your classroom and not looking beyond that.”

Wilson has met with President Barack Obama, whose sister, like Panetta’s, is a teacher. She’s also had conversations with Dr. Jill Biden, who remains a teacher even as she is second lady, as well as Education Secretary Arne Duncan and other public officials. She has attended education conferences and participated in initiatives and met with former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, creator of www.icivics.org, and Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates, who spent a couple of hours speaking with teachers at the Educational Commission Conference in Atlanta last summer, Wilson said.

“He met with all of us individually … and wanted us to tell him what’s going on in our schools and how he could help,” she said of Gates. “He wrote down what we said,” then Wilson and four other teachers were chosen to be recorded for a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation video.

“That was really neat that he would turn our thoughts into a video” to advance education, Wilson said. “His goal is to make America one of those really competitive educational societies like it used to be.”

Reports that American students’ standardized test scores are falling below those of their international peers are unsettling, but Wilson said she believes the nation is on the cusp of reversing that trend, in part due to the rapid push for new initiatives.

“After attending all of this, I really feel like we as a nation have wanted to do something in terms of big changes in education,” she said. “I think we’re ready to make significant changes and we’re right there at that point about whether we’re going to make that happen.”

Being part of the national discussions, Wilson said, “has opened my eyes to what is happening in the American education system. I think in the DODEA system, we need to be more tied to that.”

Of 1.3 million military-connection children, 80 percent attend public schools, Wilson noted, and the ones who attend DODEA schools mostly move in and out of it and public schools. DODEA works closely with military-connected public schools, even offering grants to help smooth transitions for students who move due to military relocations. Read more here.

Because of that, Wilson said, she is glad that DODEA has signed on to the Education Department’s Common Core Standards, which mandates common core curriculum for students across grade levels. “We’ll all have same vision and direction,” she said. The standards also will be “more rigorous and more relevant.”

While the details of implementation still have to be worked out, Wilson said, the policy, which is voluntary and not adopted by all states, will give teachers more flexibility in how they meet the objectives than No Child Left Behind, which DODEA did not take part in.

“I think it’s going to be a combination of a lot of different methods that the states are doing,” she said of implementation. “The advantage for DODEA is that we get to sit back and watch what some of the states have done and pick the best methods.”

Wilson, who taught for three years in public schools, said the best thing teachers can do for students is to “differentiate” teaching to meet the varied learning styles of students. She acknowledges it can be hard, but has proven it possible by reaching out to parents and students, observing students, and placing them in small groups to understand how each learns best, then tailoring curriculum to each.

“It absolutely takes time,” she said. “But I’ve found when I’ve run a classroom that really is differentiated, it is better and it can be done.”

As for current trends in education, Wilson, who also is a parent of school-aged children, said parents should not worry. “The good thing is that we are at a turning point,” she said. “There are a lot of things that other nations are doing that are great, and the states are doing great things that can be shared.”

“The past year has made me even more excited about education and the possibilities for our future,” she added.


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