Top Teachers 2018

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Fort Worth Magazine’s 2018 crop of Top Teachers bears a lot of similarities to those of years past. We’ve got a mix of teachers who went into the craft from the start of their careers and a number who were doing something else — including law, banking and accounting — before they found a new passion in the classroom. They’ve kept up with changing pedagogy that today demands lots of activity to keep kids engaged. And they’ve somehow maintained the energy to keep on educating our kids.

As always, the magazine honors five private and five public school teachers in this issue every year. We begin by asking our readers, through an online poll on our website, to vote for whom they think we should honor. Students, parents, fellow teachers and staff members this year submitted more than 600 votes. And as is always the case, we vet our final list through the teachers’ headmasters and principals.

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Dolores Huerta Elementary School, Fort Worth ISD

The kids at Eddie Arellano’s Dolores Huerta — an elementary school on Fort Worth’s North Side — are diverse, Hispanic and black, bilingual and poor. Arellano, who teaches second-graders and has taught for 28 years, 13 at Huerta, spends a lot of time teaching kids about their heritage. He’s created an in-school museum that the students contribute to, researching family histories and exploring ethnic leaders. For Earth Day, Hispanic Heritage and Black History celebrations, Arellano assigns themes and has his students reading related books and creating images for the classroom bulletin board. To get his kids thinking about college, he created the Discover College Project in 1990, where students are paired with pen pals at his alma mater, University of North Texas, where he studied radio, TV and film before going on to his master’s at Texas Wesleyan University. The college project includes an annual campus tour. “This teacher has been giving 150 percent for more than 25 years as an educator,” one parent said, in nominating Arellano. “What’s not provided by the school district, he gladly reaches into his personal funds to do what needs to be done.”

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Academy at Nola Dunn, Burleson ISD

Shaula Shaffer, who just finished her 11th year of teaching, five at Nola Dunn, jokes she feels she ought to apologize to her earliest students. “When I first started, I didn’t know what in the world I was doing,” says Shaffer, an ex-banker. The pedagogy at Nola Dunn, a lottery-admission elementary, is centered on brain-based learning, under which methods, lessons, and programs are based on research into how the brain learns. Parents ask to get their kids into Shaffer’s homeroom; Nola Dunn kindergarteners keep their homeroom teachers in first grade. Shaffer, who received her undergraduate degree from the University of Maryland and master’s in education from Grand Canyon University, is known for methodical teaching. Her students do rotations in math and reading, moving from one station to the next. “We are always actively engaged,” she says. To teach money management, her classroom has a “store”; students earn 5 cents a day and pay Shaffer back if they don’t do their work. A parent runs the store and is one of numerous who serve Shaffer’s classroom as volunteers. “She has parents in her room all the time,” Lindsey Byrd, the school’s principal, says.

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The Oakridge School, Arlington

Wesley Irons has a straightforward goal for his upper-school physics and astronomy students. “My goal is to inspire a genuine curiosity with the way the universe works,” he says. “I find it fascinating, and I find learning about it joyful.” A graduate of Keller High School, he served four years in the Marines and then enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin, where he graduated with a degree in physics. He won a spot in the graduate program at Johns Hopkins University but left after a year. “I decided I didn’t want to do research for a career. I left graduate school to teach.” Irons spent his first year teaching in The Woodlands, then was hired by Oakridge, where he just finished his third year. Irons likes his students doing inquiry-based labs. “At the end of the day, they’re able to do real science.” He breaks his classes into small groups with roles such as leader, scribe and skeptic. Parents, in nominating Irons, praise him for teaching the math behind physics: “He has an understated sense of humor that students like, so they feel comfortable approaching him.”

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Rivertree Academy, Fort Worth

Tracy McLean, in teaching for 29 years, was grammar head for a private school in Fort Worth when she headed back into the classroom. She came to Rivertree, a small private school, where she’s just finished her second year teaching third- and fourth-graders. “The first thing is you get to love our kids,” she says. “Spend summer praying for them. [Ask] what can I do better?” That may involve changing teaching approaches. “You can’t make that split decision; you have to plan ahead for it. And always remember they’re kids. What works today may not work tomorrow.” In 2017, Rivertree adopted the Charlotte Mason curriculum, named for a British educator who advocated a holistic teaching approach focused on home, development of good habits, and promotion of active thoughts and ideas. Most Rivertree students come from its lower-income Como neighborhood. The school serves breakfast, lunch and snacks; offers after-school activities; and runs service projects with students. “We try to teach our kids to give back,” McLean says. McLean is a nurturer and mentor to students and other teachers. “The kids grow academically, behaviorally, spiritually, emotionally,” Emily Ryan, the principal, says.

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McLean Middle School, Fort Worth ISD

Devin Bohannon has a straightforward perspective on students who have sometimes-severe learning disabilities: “If you don’t tell them they can’t climb stairs, they’re usually climbing stairs,” Bohannon, McLean Middle School’s special needs teacher, says. Bohannon, who has an adult brother on the autism spectrum, has taught special needs children for 21 years, five at McLean. She was working for a lawyer and preparing to go into teaching when she got a call directing her to a job posting for a special needs teacher in Crowley. Bohannon showed up and ended up helping a young man with cerebral palsy in the waiting room, unaware she was being observed. “I got the job.” Bohannon regularly uses assistive technology, three years ago piloting a program using MinecraftEdu. Her students socialize and team with others and next year will work with theater classes and produce a show. Bohannon got her kids into Special Olympics, and she takes the students on bowling and movie nights. “Her calling is to work with special needs kids,” Barbara Ozuna, McLean’s principal, says. “She feels very strongly that special needs kids should not be treated any differently than regular kids.”

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South Hills High School, Fort Worth ISD

Like several others among this year’s Top Teachers, Saleta Thomas was something else before she became a teacher. Thomas, who grew up in Levelland and graduated from Texas Tech, was an accountant. Her dad was a CPA and her mother, a teacher. Her husband was an elementary school principal in Cisco when one of the district’s English teachers died; the school moved its business teacher to English and asked Thomas to teach business. “They asked me to do it for one year, the week before school started,” she says. It stuck, and Thomas has been teaching for 20 years, 17 at South Hills. Today, she teaches 3D Animation and Video Game Design in South Hills’ digital graphics and video games Program of Choice. Thomas views it as teaching computer science; animation and games is a much more palatable branding to many students. “It’s all in the wording. I don’t think [a lot of students] have confidence in themselves that they can do computer science.” A fellow teacher, in nominating Thomas: “She is amazing with her ability to catch on to new technologies and help her students be at the cutting edge.”

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Fort Worth Country Day School, Fort Worth

Sarah Smith was an appellate lawyer, educated at the University of North Carolina and University of Texas School of Law, when she decided she wanted to do something else. “It didn’t fulfill me. I felt I had something more to give.” Smith, who graduated from Country Day in 1991 as senior class president, obtained her teaching certificate and got a job as a kindergarten associate at Country Day, under the school’s two-year program to give budding teachers a start and then send them off to other jobs. “Halfway through her first year, we knew we had to hire her,” Trey Blair, head of lower school, says. The school hired her full time. Five years in, Smith is known for unflappability. “Her room is incredibly calm,” Blair says. “She’s tolerant of lots of movement. She’s never low. She’s never high. The kids eat that up.” Smith’s two sons attend. She spends a lot of time with parents. Teaching has changed. “It’s become much more child-centered,” Smith says. “We learn much more actively. Back then, it was one spelling test for 20 kids. Now on Fridays, I give four spelling tests [depending on students’ levels].”

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All Saints’ Episcopal School, Fort Worth

David Gaul’s sixth-grade science classes are a collaborative exploration in which he likes to make himself a student, too. “When students and teachers are figuring stuff out together, that’s what makes it the most fun,” he says. His students might go Egg-streme parachuting, in which they try to parachute an egg to the ground without breaking it. Last year, he had them build complex rollercoasters out of cardstock, running marbles down them. Gaul loads his classes with forensics, where his students solve crimes or mysteries. “Why is the stream polluted? Who polluted it?” Gaul says. Or there could be a “suspicious death with vague evidence. They’re missing certain pieces. Sometimes there isn’t an answer, and that’s OK.” Gaul’s been teaching 26 years, 18 at All Saints’. A graduate of St. John’s University in Minnesota, Gaul began teaching in Wisconsin, moved to Fort Worth in 2000 with his wife, a TCU faculty member, and earned a master’s from TCU. Gaul wants his students to ask questions. “My teachers were really intimidating,” he says. Tad Bird, All Saints’ head of school, calls Gaul “one of the most dynamic teachers I know.”

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Southwest Christian School, Fort Worth

Susan Carr got into teaching accidentally, moving into it to help take care of her sister and children. “I was never going to be teacher,” Carr, who earned a BFA from TCU and was a photographer for 12 years before becoming a teacher, jokes. “But God has a sense of humor.” Carr, who earned her master’s in education from TCU, is entering her 21st year of teaching — nine years in Montessori and 11 at Southwest Christian, where she teaches Bible to seventh- and eighth-graders. Carr’s students do archaeology projects and work with board games, clay, paint, song, and acting. Students also do service projects. “The Gospel was spread because Paul was a doer,” she says. “Luke was a doer. We’ve got to become doers.” Middle school — she teaches Old Testament to seventh-graders and New Testament to eighth-graders — is a good time to teach Bible, Carr says. “This is the time they start thinking about that on their own,” she says. Joey Richards, the middle school principal, says, “I’ve never seen her not represent Christ well. She is so loving and so nurturing; the kids are drawn to her.”

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Everman High School, Everman ISD

Michael Boone gets second looks when he tells them he’s the boys head soccer coach and the AP Calculus teacher at Everman High School. He was no great success when he started teaching calculus at Everman 14 years ago. “Not very successful,” Boone says. He knew calculus but wasn’t trained in how to teach it. At least, “there was no expectation from the kids. The unspoken thing was nobody ever passes the AP Calculus test.” Today, more than 50 percent of Boone’s students annually pass it. Boone, who graduated from Poly High School, was a natural at math, tutoring kids for free since seventh grade. “It was enjoyable to get somebody to understand it. I didn’t think to get paid.” Boone attended Texas A&M-Commerce on scholarship, studying math and intending to teach. His first job was at Poly; then he applied at Everman. He didn’t get the job, but the principal noticed he lived in Everman. “She needed a math teacher, AP Calculus.” Jason Miller, Everman’s principal today, says Boone brings the coach’s intensity into his math classes. “He’s constantly open to his students,” Miller says. “His test scores show the same thing.”

How we did it: Public school districts and private schools were asked to publicize the nomination process, and we also solicited nominations via email, on our website, in the magazine, and in interviews with students, parents, and educators. Editors examined the nearly 500 nominations we received and selected 10 teachers as representative of excellence in teaching. Each teacher selected was then cleared as being worthy with top officials in his or her schools or districts.