Teachers With Class: Five Outstanding Educators

Education, Hometown Heroes
on August 26, 2014
Five Outstanding Teachers

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, an estimated 3.7 million teachers work in American public and private schools. Below, meet a few of the most innovative of these educators, each making a mark in a most memorable way.

Genein Letford
Reading, Writing and Rythym (Canoga Park, Calif.)

Five Outstanding Teachers

Ronan Cho

 The facts of Genein Letford’s childhood looked grim: Daughter of a single mom. Poor school district. Speech impediment. But Letford, 35, persevered. She spun her early tests into strengths, and today she weaves history, math and English into her lessons—a class on Duke Ellington touches on similes; a unit on Beethoven sneaks in facts about Napoleon— while connecting with NEW Academy Canoga Park elementary schoolers, a group of students who endure challenges she knows all too well.

Alex Kajitani
The Rapping Mathematician (Escondido, Calif.)

Five Outstanding Teachers

Roman Cho

“I am on a mission to make math cool,” says Alex Kajitani. At first, the mission seemed impossible. As a beginning teacher at Conway Elementary in Escondido, Calif., Kajitani, 41, could barely keep kids in seats. Then he wrote a rap about decimals called “The Itty Bitty Dot” and performed it in class. His students laughed—at him. “I was totally humiliated,” he says. But when he heard the kids rapping the song in the lunchroom, Kajitani, who has since recorded dozens of math raps, knew he was on to something. His students started coming to class excited. Their test scores improved. Mission accomplished.

Sarah Brown Wessling
Lead Learner (Johnston, Iowa)

Five Outstanding Teachers

Roman Cho

“I see the world in stories,” says Sarah Brown Wessling, 39, an English teacher at Johnston High School in Iowa, and 2010 National Teacher of the Year. In Wessling’s own story, the path to teaching wasn’t initially clear. She studied journalism, philosophy, literature, and psychology, then realized that teaching could encompass them all. In the classroom, Wessling redraws the student-teacher narrative in a new way, with students at the center, and herself figuring things out alongside them—as what she calls the leader learner. “This liberates and challenges students,” she says. “They recognize that their model is one of inquiry, of questioning, of thinking.”

Ryan Lund Neumann
The Write Stuff (Marietta, Ga.)

Five Outstanding Teachers

Roman Cho

“A real teacher story…makes the heart believe,” writes Ryan Lund Neumann, 31, in his self-published 2011 memoir, What Had Happened. In a series of candid vignettes, Neumann, who teaches English at his alma mater, Pope High School in Marietta, Ga., describes his bewildering first years of teaching: A student goes into labor. Two boys fight over a chair. Exhausted rookie teacher considers alternate professions.

At a loss, Neumann took his troubles to the page. “It saved me from quitting,” he says about his book, which led to his winning the James N. Britton award at the National Council of Teachers of English conference in Boston in 2013.

Jeff Dinse
It Takes All Kinds (Lockport, N.Y.)

Five Outstanding Teachers

When social studies teacher Jeff Dinse, 46, created a video for his students, he had no idea it would change the culture of North Park Junior High. Inspired by Miranda Lambert’s music video for her song All Kinds of Kind, Dinse’s version, which counts over 74,000 hits on YouTube to date, features kids and teachers holding handwritten signs that celebrate their “kinds”— science kind, cool hair kind. That video and its subtle anti- bullying message spawned dozens of other projects, including a website and photo mural featuring some 1,300 proud sign-holding students.

The campaign’s lasting impact? Disciplinary actions are down, and students started opening up to teachers and to each other. “Kids treat kids nicer,” Dinse says. “Before you know it, it was cool to be different. It was an amazing transformation.”

Cartoon Network Stands Up to Bullies

Statistics show that a child is bullied on a playground every seven minutes, and 85 percent of the time, no one steps in to intervene. With that in mind, in 2010, TV’s Cartoon Network launched Stop Bullying: Speak Up, a multi-platform social initiative designed to raise awareness of bullying and empower young people to speak out safely and effectively. Resources, including downloadable materials and video testimonials, are available online at StopBullyingSpeakUp.com.

Learn something!

  • In the mid-1800s, American school reformers argued for hiring more female teachers because “they were more nurturing” and could be paid one- third as much as men.
  • Founded in 1635, Boston Latin School (in Boston, Mass.) is the oldest public school in America. Benjamin Franklin attended and dropped out.
  • The average teacher workday: 10 hours and 40 minutes. For extra- curricular sponsors, add 90 minutes.