Lincoln Park Elementary teacher wins ‘American Star of Teaching’ award

Find out why national honors were awarded to this
outer East Portland kindergarten teacher …

Carolyn Snowbarger, the director of the Teacher-to-Teacher Initiative, US Department of Education shares a light moment before the awards ceremony with Barbara Rommel, Superintendent of the David Douglas Schools.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Lincoln Park Elementary School’s kindergarten teacher Tess Miller didn’t know why the school’s staff and 550 students were called to a special assembly on September 10 at 2:00 p.m.

But, by 2:10 p.m., Miller discovered that she’d been chosen Oregon’s 2008 “No Child Left Behind American Star of Teaching” award winner.

“We want all children to be able to read,” explained Carolyn Snowbarger, the director of the Teacher-to-Teacher Initiative, US Department of Education, as we waited for the assembly to begin. Snowbarger was to present the award.

“Tess Miller is doing good work in identifying the individual needs of students,” Snowbarger explained. “She realizes ‘one size doesn’t fit all’ – she analyzes each student’s ability, then uses that data to provide specialized instruction. She is doing tremendous work with all of these students.”

Lincoln Park Elementary’s principal Linda Oakzaki, introduces the school’s first assembly of the year.

Test scores verify excellence
Next we met Toni Gula, the recently retired “Reading First” literacy coach – she’s served the school in that capacity for the last five years.

Gula said she was the one who nominated Miller – because “Tess is a master teacher. She’s done a fantastic job with her kindergarten students year after year, after year, after year.”

Asked how one might judge a teacher’s effectiveness, Gula replied, “Depending on the year, between 92 to 98% of her students have met not just one – but three – literacy benchmarks.”

5,000 nominated, 50 chosen
While the students filed into the gym and settled down, we spotted Miller organizing and seating her kindergarteners. Principal Linda Oakzaki introduced their guest from Washington DC, Ms. Snowbarger.

“There are many kinds of heroes in this world – those with fictional powers – those who fly into space, for example,” Snowbarger began. “I’m with you today because some teachers are heroes, too.”

Since 2004, she went on, the Department of Education has honored one teacher in each state by naming them an “American Star of Teaching”. This year, about 5,000 teachers were nominated.

“Teachers nominated are from all different kinds of schools,” said Snowbarger. “Some schools are located in big cities like Portland; some are in the small, rural communities; they teach grades kindergarten through 12th. The teachers who are selected all have in common that they’re all making a positive difference in the lives of their students.  That’s why I’m happy to be here today, to honor one of your teachers…Tess Miller.”

Kindergarten teacher Tess Miller looks genuinely surprised when she learns she’s the award winner.

Miller is presented her award by Carolyn Snowbarger.

“I’ve always enjoyed teaching kindergarten students,” Miller says. “This is a big surprise.”

Teacher looks astonished
Although her name was released in advance publicity, the staff at Lincoln Park had kept Miller’s impending award a secret from her. When her name was announced, a flood of emotions poured over Miller’s face; she clutched her hands to her chest for a moment, before she arose to accept the award.

“This is very exciting time,” exclaimed Miller. “It is an honor to teach kindergarten. Thank you so much, kindergartners.” A rousing wave of applause spread through the auditorium.

Many students who were once in Miller’s kindergarten class rise, and honor their first teacher.

Already touched many lives
Teacher Sam Wallace then arose to lead the students in their school song. But first, he asked that any older students who had once been in Miller’s class to stand up. A sea of kids jumped to their feet and again applauded, acknowledging their first teacher.

Then, the assembly was over. As the young scholars filed out, row by row, Principal Linda Oakzaki commented, “She is very deserving. She is an exemplary teacher. Our teachers do so much for our children.”

Barbara Rommel, Superintendent of the David Douglas Schools, was beaming as she told us, “This s wonderful recognition of her teaching skills, and a great reflection on the whole district. In addition to reading, she helps them also learn writing, math – and how to be a responsible student. She’s one of many wonderful teachers we have in this district.”

Oregon’s American Star of Teaching instructor, Lincoln Park Elementary School kindergarten teacher Tess Miller shows her award with the person who nominated her, “Reading First” literacy coach Toni Gula.

Says she enjoys her kindergartners
As Miller’s class waited their turn to leave the assembly, the honored teacher told us, “You know, this was a very good surprise, and it’s really exciting. I really enjoy teaching kindergarten. I enjoy the freshness of the students. They come from all different backgrounds, and they really want to learn.”

© 2008 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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