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S.C. teacher of year returns to Rock Hill classroom

Bryan Coburn, South Carolina's 2009 Teacher of the Year, will pass the torch to Kelly Nalley, a Spanish teacher at Fork Shoals School in Pelzer in July.

Coburn has racked up more than 30,000 miles traveling the state as an "ambassador for public education." In an interview with The Herald, Coburn, 49, discussed his tenure and whether he'll go back to teaching pre-engineering, computer programming and business at Northwestern High School in Rock Hill.

What have you gotten out of being Teacher of the Year?

This year has broadened my perspective and deepened my understanding of education. I have seen educational issues from regional perspectives, statewide views, national considerations and global aspects that I would not have experienced except for this occasion.

I have met with legislators and business leaders and had the chance to hear their viewpoints about education. I have talked with a full spectrum of educators from classroom teachers to the state's superintendent of education. I have gained a more comprehensive point of view as a result.

I have met with many outstanding teachers across this state as well as exceptional teachers from across this nation. We have engaged in passionate examination of subjects such as national standards, high-stakes testing, the achievement gap, and numerous other educational issues. I have had meaningful conversations with several past National Teachers of the Year.

I have become a better advocate for my students and my profession this year. I will no longer be able to be silent on issues that affect our classrooms. I have had my leadership skills developed and strengthened and I have a strong desire to continue to develop them going forward.

How has the experience changed the way you look at public education?

I am more firm in my belief that public education is vital to our state's and our nation's future. We cannot have a tiered educational system or one that is imbalanced if, as a society, we want better citizens and if, economically, we want to be global leaders.

Public education provides the work force for our community. The educational level of employees has a multiplier effect on our economy. A well-prepared individual lessens the burden on our government and the need for social programs that result from being poorly educated or unemployable.

Do you plan to return to teaching at Northwestern High School in August?

I plan to be back at Northwestern next year. I have had other opportunities, but I am looking forward to being back in the classroom with my students. The classroom is where you have a chance to directly make a difference in a student's life, and I miss that immensely.

However, I have gained enormous experience and insight and I have developed skills that give me the opportunity to have a far greater impact on student achievement. If other doors open that will allow me to improve education in another manner, then I would have to consider it.

Will your teaching style or approach to teaching change as a result of your experience?

My basic teaching style will not change. I still believe my role is to extend each student to his or her ever-growing potential. I believe in being a facilitator of their educational growth so they are not limited by my knowledge but are prepared to develop and learn beyond my classroom as lifelong learners. I will continue to challenge them with rigorous material, along with a healthy dose of humor. Learning is hard work, but it should be enjoyable.

I have learned many ways to enhance my teaching style. Teaching for the multiple intelligences in my classes, techniques for better collaborative learning, and student self-assessment techniques are some of the ways I will improve my classroom.

You've had a pretty hectic schedule this last year. What are some of the most memorable moments?

I do recall two young high school ladies who wanted a copy of a book that I had used in a talk I gave to a group of future teachers. I told them that the books were sold out and their countenance dropped. I quickly said, "You can have my book but I only have one." They shrieked and they asked me to autograph it.

It was such an odd feeling that they would want my autograph. That and $3 will get you a cup of coffee. I signed it with both their names and they were so excited and wanted their picture taken with me and the book. I thought that was the last I would see of them.

Then six months later I saw them again and they came running up to me and yelled, "Do you remember us?" Of course I did, and they told me that they decided to give the book to their favorite teacher as a gift and they thanked me.

That still seems peculiar to me that such a simple act would mean so much to them. But it reminds me of those simple actions we do every day in the classroom or in our neighborhoods that can and so often do make a difference in someone's life.

I have taken that lesson to heart and recently, after being cooped up for a day of training with the National Teacher of the Year program, some of us decided to go for a walk. The Oklahoma Teacher of the Year mentioned that the Iwo Jima memorial was nearby and we decided to trek over to it.

When we approached the memorial, a bus carrying World War II veterans was arriving. As one lady was taking a picture of a veteran in a wheelchair I asked her if she would like to have their picture taken together. After taking the picture I walked over to shake the veteran's hand and I thanked him for his service. His deep blue eyes were suddenly rimmed in red as they filled with tears. Then, to my surprise, he thanked me. I found it strange that he was thanking me.

Spontaneously, we began walking around the memorial shaking hands and thanking the veterans for their service. Several asked for hugs and we were all overcome with emotion as these American heroes expressed their appreciation, shared their sorrow, and showed respect for those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. Sharing the moment with these brave men and women is one of my fondest memories.

Joking with Vice President Joe Biden on the front porch of the vice presidential mansion is extremely memorable. Spending several hours at the White House and meeting with the President in the Oval Office before exiting to sit in the Rose Garden is also a challenging memory to top.

What do you think of the U.S. Department of Education's Race to the Top program? Do you agree with its priorities for reforming public education, such as focusing on diagnostic student performance data, teacher evaluations and charter schools?

Public schools should be evolving and changing as the world about us changes. It is incumbent on public schools to meet the needs of our students and our community. Therefore, public schools should be reforming constantly. If school reform is done correctly it should encourage innovation and it should support effective education.

The focus must be on our students. We must not make the same mistakes we have in the past of collecting data and checking off boxes, yet not interpreting data and accurately determining if appropriate student growth is occurring.

Based on your teaching career and your experience this past year, what specific and candid advice would you give to South Carolina's next superintendent of education?

As a conceptual framework he or she will need to have thick skin and an open mind. But most of all, they will need a caring heart with a focus on the most important person we work for - the student. Their decision process must never lose sight of the fact that our students must receive a high quality education. This should be at the core of every decision they make.

One suggestion I would make would be to increase the exchange of information from the classroom to the State Department of Education on issues and implementation of strategies. This will improve the next superintendent's ability to assess the effectiveness of programs and to develop assistance for teachers to improve classroom instruction.

Next, he or she must address educational funding and funding formulas. The next superintendent must work with the Legislature to develop solutions on this politically difficult issue. We cannot be indifferent to the long-term costs of under-funding our children's future and our state's future economic positioning.

Finally, improving the graduation rate is essential. This starts with the realization that intervention must occur early and often to be effective. The solution requires a coalition of all of the stakeholders. Schools, the students, families, businesses, and the community all have an important role in addressing this issue.