Changing the World, One Student at a Time

Meet 15 people who qualify as Fort Worth, Texas magazine Top Teachers in 2012.
Next to our parents — and in some cases more important than our parents — teachers shape our lives. A reader who is also a teacher suggested that we find some way to recognize the importance of teachers. The result is this list of men and women who daily toil under sometimes difficult circumstances in one of the most important jobs around. Space does not permit us to quote from the nominations, but especially moving were those from the students themselves who praised their teachers for challenging them, believing in them, attending their events when they didn’t have to and treating them with respect in the classroom. Teachers selected responded to a questionnaire from us. They spoke of their love of teaching, their concerns about state regulation and funding, too little time to do the kind of job they would like to do, the problems that increasingly wired students — it’s an iChild world, one said — introduce in the classroom and, in an interesting note, concern that modern students may not spend enough time outdoors doing traditional childhood activities like playing in the mud. Click HERE to nominate Top Teachers for 2013.

Coby Bird
Southwest Christian School, Fort Worth
Life Calling and Biblical Leadership Experience: 15 years Education: Bachelor of Behavioral Science in Social Studies/Secondary Education, Hardin-Simmons University

When Coby Bird started college, he was searching for a career that would allow him to change the world. “As I considered how teachers and coaches had changed my world and the possibility of working with thousands of young people, I knew that is what I wanted to do,” he said. The rewards are great, but teaching in today’s world can be difficult. “I think the hardest part is the emotional, physical, spiritual and psychological exhaustion for teachers,” Bird said. “When you give and give all day every day, it can really put you in a bad state if you don’t have a solid support system around you. Having supportive family, friends, fellow staff members and administration is critical.” Outside the classroom, Bird and his family are deeply involved in The Commons Church in South Fort Worth. “We love working with different mission projects,” he said. “We also spend a lot of time following our favorite sports teams and going to concerts and small music venues. I am also an educational leadership consultant during the summers for The Flippen Group. This involves conducting teacher leadership workshops around the country.”

Jane Cooper
Trinity Valley School, Fort Worth
2nd Grade Experience: 30 years Education: B.A. Sociology, Texas Lutheran University; Teacher Certification, Texas Wesleyan University; M.L.A., Texas Christian University

Jane Cooper teaches because she hopes “my educational footprints today will help impact the world of tomorrow.” “I strive to provide real-world learning opportunities to engage students in becoming visionary thinkers, problem solvers and respectful citizens, while broadening their local and global views,” Cooper said. “Students need to interact and learn with the world, not simply learn about the world.” But that’s challenging. “Teaching core content along with critical thinking, problem solving skills and responsible citizenship — within the framework of 21st century learning — requires a teacher to stay current on research and alter pedagogy when warranted.” Ensuring that every teachable moment builds independent skills for real world application is essential. Out of the classroom, she enjoys traveling, cooking, gardening, reading, music and soon “grandmother-ing.” “And yes, I often devote free time to professional development opportunities. We need to model the concepts of global citizens and life-long, Renaissance learners ourselves.”

Jason Sabotin
Arlington Heights High School, Fort Worth ISD
Advanced Placement English Language and Composition, Film Studies and Creative Writing Experience: 10 years Education: B.A. in English, University of Florida

Jason Sabotin finds that teaching is a perfect blend for him. “I love being a ham and a comedian in front of people, and I love English. Teaching allows me to do both, with the added bonus of maybe being a positive influence or inspiration to a student here and there along the way,” he said. But education must change. “The basic teaching model still dates from Socrates’ time, and we’re 2,500 years beyond that. The students of today definitely are not hardwired for 2,500, 100, or even 50 years ago. The true challenge is to change the paradigms and the ways we think about teaching without scaring everyone.” He’s frustrated because education is driven by politics; and in nearly all cases, politicians either have never taught, or are advised by people who never taught, or who taught so long ago that they have no idea of the reality of current schools and teaching. In the summer, he and his wife travel a lot. He practices Mantis Kung Fu., studies Mandarin Chinese and loves “playing and studying chess, reading, watching movies, and learning new things.”

Tiffany Bates
Primrose School at Heritage, Keller
Kindergarten Experience: First year Education: B.S. in Interdisciplinary Studies EC-6 Generalist, University of North Texas

Tiffany Bates says she teaches “to help children accomplish things they may never have thought possible.” And she loves seeing the impact that learning has on young children when they discover what they can do — the “light bulb” moment. The most challenging part of teaching, she says, is figuring out how each child’s brain works, but she also is concerned about support from the parents in decisions regarding their children. “I think students today view school differently than they did when I was in school,” Bates said. “They don’t take it as seriously sometimes.” In her downtime, she loves to cook, exercise and spend time outdoors with her husband and their three dogs.


Andrew Brinker
Paschal High School, Fort Worth ISD
AP Biology and AP Environmental Science Experience: Five years Education: B.S. in Zoology, Michigan State University; M.S. in Biology, Texas Christian University

Andrew Brinker is so fond of reptiles that he spends his spare time searching for and photographing them in remote areas of the United States with his wife, Christina, and their son, Baxter. That passion is one reason he teaches. “I want students to gain a better understanding of the world’s interdependence and how their daily decisions affect not only themselves but the entire biosphere,” Brinker said. He wants students to be familiar with cellular level processes but also the birds, trees and toads found in their own backyard. “In order to help supplement the curriculum, I organize field trips to the Botanic Research Institute of Texas, the Village Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant and Texas Christian University. At the campus level, we explore the plants using the phone app ‘Leaf Snap,’ which helps the students identify trees using photos of leaves taken with their cell phones,” Brinker said. That integrates smart phones into the process for “the new ‘digital students’ who have developed a symbiosis with their cell phones.” That’s important, he said, because “nowadays children grow up with technology and must be taught using that technological language.”

Michael S. Jenkins
Castleberry Elementary, Castleberry ISD
Physical Education Experience: Two years Education: B.S. in Kinesiology/Physical Education, Texas Christian University.

“I teach for a better future,” says Michael Jenkins. “Teachers have a chance to inspire kids in ways no one else can. ... We live in a time where everyone has the right to do and become whatever they want. Teachers can open the door for students — but they must walk in.” Jenkins finds teaching at a Title I school rewarding. “The greatest part of my day is when the kiddos come to school or my class with a smile on their face,” he said. “Some of our students are not as fortunate as others. It doesn’t matter if they didn’t get the chance to eat last night. When they get to our school, they are embraced with love and support.” He says he has the best job in the school as a PE teacher. “When I’m not teaching, you can find me spending time with friends and family,” Jenkins said. “On Sunday, I’ll be at church.”


Laura Lawley
Willard Ross Stuard Elementary, Aledo ISD
3rd Grade General Education Experience: Six years Education: B.A., Texas Wesleyan University; Alternative Certification 2006

Teaching is a calling and also her passion, Laura Lawley says. “I am blessed to able to help children become the best they can be.” But it can be rewarding, challenging and frustrating all at the same time. “The most rewarding part about teaching is seeing the excitement when they learn something new. The most challenging thing about teaching in today’s world is instilling the belief that gaining knowledge should always be the most important thing in life. My greatest frustration as a teacher is staying on top of all the paper work necessary for student assessment.” Students face more pressure than ever before. “Students are involved with all different activities — sports, music, art, clubs, etc. — as well as having all the latest and greatest technologies available,” Lawley said. When she has free time, “you can find me being a mom, reading, traveling or on our boat.”


Kelly Leach
Trinity Springs Middle School, Keller ISD
Language Arts 7th and 8th Grade, Special Education and Inclusion Experience: 10 years Education: Bachelor’s in Psychology, Dallas Baptist University; Master’s in Curriculum and Instruction, Tarleton State University

Kelly Leach believes that God created her desire to encourage her students to know that they are very valued. “I have high expectations for each one of them, and I cheer them on by inspiring them to believe that they can accomplish many things with hard work and determination,” she said. It is rewarding when her students can function without her help. “I think part of a teacher’s job is to work their way out of being needed and to create independent learners who want to continue learning when you are no longer their teacher.” It is challenging in a high-tech world to make sure students are proficient in using paper and pen to express themselves and at the same time assure that they are comfortable with technology. Family and church involve her off duty. “I am a single mom of a large family of eight children, two sons-in-law and six grandchildren, all of whom I adore. I also help teach a women’s Bible study class and a 4-year-old Sunday school class at Hillside Community Church.”

Caroline Lamsens
Fort Worth Country Day School, Fort Worth
Kindergarten Experience: 10 years Education: B.S. in Applied Learning and Development, University of Texas; Master’s in Educational Administration (December 2012), Texas Christian University

Caroline Lamsens proves you can go home again. She attended Fort Worth Country Day from kindergarten through 12th grade. “I teach to share the love of learning with my students,” she said. “There is pure joy in watching a child learn to love to read. My hope is that their love of books and learning will last them a lifetime.” She finds building relationships with both the students and their parents inside and outside the classroom to be very rewarding. Technology and the resources it makes available forces work at a faster pace for both adults and students. But some things never change, Lamsens said. “I do believe all students want to be supported, encouraged and nurtured, which is something that will never change,” she said. “When I’m not teaching, you can find me spending time with my amazing family, my husband, Frank, and children, Charlotte, almost 2, and Teddy, 1 month. We enjoy playing in the park, cooking, and, of course, reading,” Lamsens said.

Josh Roberts
Charlotte Anderson Elementary, Mansfield ISD
3rd Grade Math/Science Experience: Seven years Education: B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies with Education Emphasis, University of Texas at Arlington; Master’s of Education Administration, Lamar University

Josh Roberts loves the stage, and the classroom is just another version of that for him. “I love creativity and discovery, and the classroom is one of the best places for that,” Roberts said. “The most rewarding part is when the roles reverse, and suddenly I’m the one learning and they are teaching.” Roberts says that people now live in a world of instant gratification, and students expect learning to be the same. “Teaching them that they have a responsibility in their own learning process is hard, but an absolute necessity,” Roberts said. Once teaching was tutoring students on how to be active members in their local community, but with today’s available technology, he says, “now, it is teaching students how to be active members in a global society.” Outside the classroom, he’s a full-time performer with the comedy group, Four Day Weekend. “I also love music and am a worship leader at the First United Methodist Church in Mansfield,” Roberts said. “I have two awesome kids and an amazing wife that I love spending time with.”

William J. Fanning Jr.
All Saints’ Episcopal School, Fort Worth
10th Grade History Experience: 43 years Education: B.A., M.A., East Texas State University; M.A. in German/French, University of Mississippi; Ph.D., Texas Christian University; University of Vienna, Austria, (history—no degree)

William J. Fanning Jr. began his teaching career at Texarkana Junior College in 1968 as an instructor in German, French and history, and his love affair with teaching has never flagged. “My approach is to be somewhat flexible, taking the study of history seriously — but not too seriously — and trying to get students excited about the grand sweep of events and ideas as well as the personal experiences of single individuals.” His greatest frustration is seeing students who choose not to use their talents. But he says that on the whole, students have changed little over his career. He spends much of his free time in research to reinforce his teaching.

Genifer Best
Alice Carlson Applied Learning Center, Fort Worth ISD
Elementary Art Experience: 14 years Education: B.A. Graphic Art, B.A. Theatre Arts, Texas A&M University; M.A. Arts Management, Columbia College; TMATE Program, Tarleton State University

Genifer Best's greatest joy “is having excited children along for the journey and seeing how far they progress in the six years I have them in my class.” She's concerned that her students are “tactilely defensive, in other words, reluctant to use materials that might get them dirty or that might make a mess. Very few children have ever made mud pies or created something out of things they have found independently. Off duty, she works on her art and is a Little League baseball mom who spends summers on the tournament circuit. She also works with a group of unsheltered and at-risk youth in an art program she helped create called Project Success.

Andrea Howell
Tannahill Intermediate, White Settlement ISD
6th Grade Math Experience: Five years Education: B.S. in Family Studies, University of Arizona, Tucson; Teaching certification through Region XI

Andrea Howell says she loves working with children and families and knowing that on a daily basis she can make a difference and have a positive influence in someone’s life. The greatest challenge in teaching is having so many things to teach the kids in such a limited amount of time. “It’s also all the other things that you have to do as well,” she said. “Not only am I teacher of 100 plus students, but a mother, nurse, mentor, etc.” Outside the classroom, she spends time with friends and family. She has a 10-year-old son who plays soccer.  She’s a runner. “I love the outdoors, so swimming, fishing, hiking are enjoyable pastimes as well,” she said.

Jessica Patterson
Tanglewood Elementary, Fort Worth ISD
5th Grade Math and Science and 3rd-5th Grade Art Experience: 17 years Education: B.S. in Education, Texas Christian University

Jessica Patterson is a fourth generation educator and a product of the Fort Worth ISD and can’t imagine herself in another profession. Patterson loves the moment when a child is working on a concept and it finally clicks. “The spark in their eyes and the look on their faces makes it all worth it,” she says. She wants her students to never “lose their love of learning. I want my students to be excited about new concepts and ideas. I want them to try new things and not be so worried about failing,” Patterson said. She worries that competition for grades and other recognition could mean children lose a part of themselves in the process. We are living in an iChild world, she says, and she yearns “to hear more stories from my children about playing outside, riding bikes, exploring nature or just hanging out with their friends in addition to being connected to technology.” Outside the school — “When are we ever not teaching?” she asks — she spends time with family and friends and Lula and Pixie, “my knucklehead dogs.” “I enjoy painting shoes for TOMS and seeing the smiles on the faces of happy customers,” she said. “I love to laugh and will go to extreme measures to make others laugh and feel special.”


Steve Holcomb
Fort Worth Christian School, Fort Worth
Algebra I, Intermediate Algebra and coaches boys’ soccer Experience: Four years Education: B.B.A. in Accounting and Finance, Abilene Christian University

Steve Holcomb considered becoming a youth minister. “So in a way, my teaching allows me to minister to kids in a Christian school and hopefully make a small difference in their lives,” he said. “I enjoy taking a difficult subject — math — that many kids dislike and showing them that it can still be fun, though they still have to put the work in,” Holcomb said. “On the coaching side, working closely with the team forms close bonds between the students and coaches, in both victory or defeat. It is rewarding to teach young men how to win and lose without sacrificing effort or becoming conceited.” But it is becoming more and more difficult to teach the necessity of organization and hard work for future success to a generation used to instant gratification, he said. “My greatest frustration is usually motivating the students with great potential, but no desire to succeed,” Holcomb said. In his free time, he serves as a teacher at his local church in both adult and youth classes. He’s an avid sports fan and plays in a softball and indoor soccer league. And he helps coach his daughters’ teams.

How We Did It

We contacted almost all private schools in the area and 20 public school districts about this project. We sent them a call for nominations and a flier that could be reproduced and solicited readers on our Web site, through social media and in the magazine. We received 1,240 nominations — many of them duplicates — from parents, other teachers and from students. Not all schools or districts were represented in the results, and some made a conscious decision not to participate officially. Once the results were tabulated, we read the nominations and selected these teachers whom we thought were excellent representatives of the profession. And we checked each with the proper school authorities to make sure that they were worthy of inclusion.