Top Teachers 2017
Fort Worth Magazine’s Top Teachers 2017, our annual shout-out to private and public school teachers, covers the gamut from kindergarten to high school, library to choir, English to history and math. Our list includes five private and five public school teachers, gleaned from readers’ votes in online balloting every spring via our website, fwtx.com. Introducing our Top Teachers 2017:
The Oakridge School If students have been attending Oakridge since fifth grade, they’ve had Andrew Stewart for choir. In fifth grade, the school rotates all students through Oakridge’s arts programs. Beginning in sixth grade, students pick two arts programs to continue with. “If they’re on campus, I’ve had them in class,” says Stewart, who estimates he’ll have 200 students this fall in kindergarten through 12th grade. “The arts are important. Art in context has a huge historical significance. It gives them purpose. We push them pretty hard in terms of music literacy.” Stewart, who has a bachelor’s in music education and master’s in choral conducting, both from Oklahoma State University, has been at Oakridge for five years. He regularly leads students on trips to competitions, and students have won numerous awards. Stewart also chaperones upper school trips to Carnegie Hall, where students get to perform with other visiting choirs. “Our goal isn’t to make them the next great artist,” he says. “Our real goal is to get them to appreciate the arts, get them to participate or become a patron.” One parent says of Stewart: “He’s taken this small program and put it on the map. His motivation and enthusiasm keep everyone excited. Because he holds each student accountable, [performance in] their other classes has improved as well.”
Alice Carlson Applied Learning Center, Fort Worth ISD Angela Tuttle thought she’d be a middle school special education teacher, but on her first job in the Plano schools, “they threw me into a first-grade classroom. The first day of school, I had a kid throw up. I had no idea what to do.” Tuttle is now in her 14th year at Alice Carlson as a kindergarten and first-grade teacher (students have the same homeroom teachers for kindergarten through first grade at Alice Carlson) and has been full-time since 2008. Her style: “I really believe every child is a learner,” says Tuttle, who received the most votes of any public school teacher in our Top Teachers 2017. “It’s up to us to give them the tools. I want to be playful. I want them to know I’m their friend, in the sense that I’m a learner with them. I love them. I also have expectations. I like structure, but I like kids to be problem-solvers and to question. I build community, not just with the kids, but with their families.” Tuttle, who has a bachelor’s from Stephen F. Austin University and a master’s in elementary education from the University of North Texas, opens each day with a classroom meeting, where “we give compliments and hear concerns.” Janis Harris, the Carlson principal, says, “She can tell you to any detail what a child understands about reading, what a child understands about writing, what a child understands about math.”
Ditto Elementary School, Arlington ISD If getting students moving is a key strategy our Top Teachers 2017 deploy, Brittany Wagoner likes to take that a step further. Drop by her fourth-grade classroom at Ditto, and you may see Wagoner leading her students in yoga. “When you focus, you’re telling your body what to do,” she says. “It centers their brain and helps them focus.” Wagoner further incorporates movement into daily instruction. I get them out of their seat and get them moving based on their answers to questions, and students do a lot of work with partners, says Wagoner, who’s taught at Ditto for three years and obtained her undergraduate degree in psychology from Old Dominion University and master’s from Reinhardt University. Part of her core style: “I respect my students. I provide an atmosphere that’s rigorous and challenges them. I’ve always wanted to teach. I want to pay it forward. I want to be that inspiration. I want to give these kids that education that I would want for my children.” One fellow teacher on Wagoner: “If she can see that a student is struggling, she pulls them aside and tries to help them through whatever is troubling them, whether it be school, home, or behavior related. [She] understands that in order to be an effective teacher, you must build a respectful relationship with the students.”
Nolan Catholic High School David Mabry is often not hard to spot in the hallways of Nolan Catholic. He’s the one who sometimes dresses as historical characters and then has his students interview him. Mabry, who teaches 11th grade U.S. History, A.P. U.S. History, and a U.S. survey course for Tarrant County College credit, also runs small-scale battle re-enactments with students. “History is not dead to him,” Erin Vader, Nolan’s president, says. “It is very much alive. It informs the future.” The number of students taking A.P. History has doubled under Mabry, who’s taught at Nolan four years. Enrollment in a dual credit Tarrant County College program also doubled in his second year. Mabry, who has a bachelor’s in history and English from TCU and master’s in English from UT Arlington: “I want them to be able to handle history, not just read it in text. History shapes the way we live. The better you grasp that, the better you know where we are.”
All Saints Episcopal School Emily Davis, who is the top vote-getter among private school teachers, had a message for students when she took over as middle school choir director during the 2015-16 school season. “From the very beginning, I told the students, they were really on the ground floor of a huge choral program I was building,” she says. As of the 2016-17 year, Davis added the upper school choir. At a regional competition last year, All Saints had 29 gold medal winners. Eleven went to state, where the school won seven gold medals and four silver. Participation in the choir has also surged. Davis recruits kids by encouraging them to be well-rounded. “I was an athlete,” says Davis, who has a bachelor of music education degree from Texas Wesleyan University and worked in education as an independent contractor for years before she joined All Saints. “I encourage them not to box themselves in. I think everyone has a music inside of them and everyone has a voice given by God.” Tad Bird, All Saints’ head of school, says that Davis “takes a disparate collection of voices and creates a harmony that amplifies our school’s outcome statement – our students will exercise their genius within through developing a relationship with God, by engaging the world and by serving others.”
Dolores Huerta Elementary School, Fort Worth ISD Teaching wasn’t Jose Alvarez’ first path. A graduate of the University of Texas at Arlington, with a bachelor’s degree in advertising, he was working at American Airlines, overseeing advertising in the Hispanic and Latin American markets. But Alvarez, who was also working part-time in afterschool programs at Boys & Girls Clubs, wanted to have more impact. His sister’s a teacher, so he obtained alternative certification and got his first job six years ago at Dolores Huerta, teaching first grade. The next year, the school moved him to fifth grade as a math teacher. Alvarez takes advantage of the “very active” nature of fifth-graders with a trash can basketball game he rigged up, awarding shots for correct answers to questions, good behavior and good citizenship, and giving prizes to teams with the most points. He writes popular figures like Pokémon characters into word problems and plays soccer with the kids at recess. And “I let them know about my childhood,” says Alvarez, who grew up on Fort Worth’s North Side. Alvarez’s teaching pays off. “We always have outstanding scores in our test data,” Carla Coscia, the principal, says. “He makes it fun. He ties it to real-world applications.”
Trinity Valley School Kay Newton retired this year from 44 years as a kindergarten teacher at Trinity Valley, but knew she’d have to find something else to do. “I’m going to have to find a way to teach without having a classroom,” Newton, who taught generations of Fort Worth kindergarteners at Trinity Valley, told us just after school let out for the summer. Newton stayed retired from the school for a few weeks. She’ll return this fall in an administrative role, giving assessments to kindergarten applicants and volunteering her time to help establish curriculum and programming at a learning site at a ranch in Salado in Central Texas. The ranch, owned by a Trinity Valley family, has an archaeological site. “My secret desire is to be an archaeologist,” she says. “I’m excited to be a part of it.” Newton’s service at Trinity Valley was marked by continuous learning, remaking of her teaching approach, and use of tools like blogging and data-gathering technologies, says Sandy McNutt, Trinity Valley’s head of lower school. “She is a constant learner of best pedagogy.”
A.P. English 4
North Crowley High School, Crowley ISD Kim Springsted, surprised to learn she was voted onto our Top Teachers 2017, did what she always does: she asked her students what makes her effective and what she could do better. “I asked them to reflect on their own learning,” says Springsted, who’s taught in the Crowley schools for 22 years and was one of the original teachers when North Crowley High School opened in 1999. “They gave me lots of answers.” You give us confidence and encourage us to take risks, they told her. You praise us, suggesting ideas and asking questions. You let us talk. It’s hard work. You believe in us more than we believe in ourselves. What might they change? “I’m a little frightening, is what I got a lot of,” she jokes. “But I always tell them it’s better that you have a B with a teacher who loves you than a college professor who doesn’t know you.” Springsted, who was a law clerk before obtaining a teaching certificate from Tarleton State University, helps coach struggling teachers and students. Her work pays off in students’ consistently very high scores in A.P. English 4 nationally, Stefani Allen, the principal, says. “She’s one of our most requested teachers.”
Southwest Christian School, Chisholm Trail Campus Kris Benton likes to tell her students “the more you read, the more you will know.” A public and private school librarian for 17 years, Benton has been at Southwest Christian for 10 years and is librarian at its K-6 lower school campus. There, Benton, who has a bachelor’s in education from TCU and a master of library science from Texas Woman’s University, has helped build the library into a “learning commons” with 23,000 books and computer stations with 20 computers, iPads, and Chromebooks. This fall, Benton is opening a makerspace, where kids can do coding, Lego robotics, and crafts. At storytime with children, Benton often reads in Irish brogue. “I can do only Irish and extreme Texas,” she says. Is she Irish? “Not that I can think of.” Benton makes it her mission to quickly get to know her students and their interests so she can suggest books. She throws reading parties and gives T-shirts to students who meet Accelerated Reader goals. “If they like reading, they’re going to be good at everything else,” she says. Benton was originally a business major at TCU, then changed tracks to teaching after getting to teach business to schoolchildren under a TCU partnership with Junior Achievement. She first had an elementary school homeroom, then decided she didn’t want to be a traditional teacher. The library called. “She loves that library as a space to make all the kids feel really comfortable,” Justin Kirk, the Chisholm Trail Campus principal, says.
Kennedale Junior High School, Kennedale ISD Tammy Bergere always wanted to be a teacher. “I would play teacher with my sisters,” says Bergere, who graduated from Texas A&M with a degree in curriculum and instruction. “I would be the teacher and teach them things.” As a military brat, she and her family moved around a lot. “I got to see a lot of teachers and teaching styles,” she says. Her first job, in 1991, was at Fort Worth’s Paschal High School in a pilot program, where struggling students took algebra over two years and a summer school. She got married and left teaching for 13 years to stay home with two children. She’s now in her 12th year at Kennedale Junior High School and is math department chair. How does she keep her students engaged? “I just try to be real with them. My kids will call me a weirdo. I can’t sing. But occasionally, I’ll sing things.” She tells students, “We need to put as many tools as possible into your tool bag.” And classroom instruction includes a lot of movement. “We’ll do three or four things in class each day,” she says. “We’ll get up, move around and talk to partners about topics. This generation needs to be entertained.” She’s also mindful of stats that show “to learn you have to be exposed to it 28 times in three weeks. And you have to have slept in between.” Bergere’s students are consistent high performers, Michael Cagle, the school’s principal, says. “Every few years, she re-creates her teaching. She takes on best practices. She learns from those who are around her.”
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.