What started out as a Junior Achievement teaching assignment drew one Blount County resident into a career in the classroom and, after eight years, a national award.
Susan Wagner, a fourth grade teacher at Porter Elementary School, was one of five Tennessee teachers to receive the 2008 Award of Recognition for Outstanding Teaching in the Humanities. Wagner was flown to Washington D.C., to accept her award. She said she was never expecting a nomination or an award. “I was just doing my job,” Wagner said.
The Award of Recognition for Outstanding Teaching was created by Humanities Tennessee. Founded in 1973 through funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the organization sought to improve the educational aspects of the social sciences. Through the years, Humanities Tennessee has narrowed its focus into the studies of community history and cultural life and the studies of language and literature, according to its Web site.
Porter Elementary Principal Deborah Craig nominated Wagner for the award earlier this year. Wagner said she had to collect letters of recommendation from parents and colleagues; a proposal with what she will do with the grant money; and her personal teaching philosophy and how she will incorporate the humanities into the lives of students. She sent the packet in mid-March and waited.
Wagner’s career path into teaching started differently than most. Her first career was in computers, and she said she didn’t always want to be a teacher. She got her first experience in teaching when her company asked her to teach the Junior Achievement Program.
Junior Achievement offers students insight into business, economics and hands-on experiences on how a business is run. She was with it for three years. After that she began substituting in Blount County and went back to school. “Substituting (and teaching) seemed like something I could follow,” Wagner said.
She received her Master’s degree in Instructional Technology and Curriculum from the University of Tennessee and her undergraduate degree from Maryville College in Child Development and Learning with teacher licensure.
It has been eight years since Wagner started teaching at Porter Elementary School. And her award-winning philosophy has always involved hands-on learning. “We have to follow the standards set (for the curriculum), but I can stretch them and be creative,” she said.
When she was in elementary school she said she could not remember the workbooks and assignments because they were “boring.” What stood out in her mind is the interactive teaching techniques she had, and now she incorporates that into her style. “I had the textbooks, but they were boring,” Wagner said. “I remember building a village replica … or a speaker coming in. Whatever was out of the ordinary, is what I remember.”
Participatory learning, memorization, games, cooperative learning and constructivist all make their mark in her teaching philosophy. She uses these to keep the students interested and motivated, but it does not always work this way. “Not all (students) come in motivated,” she said. “I have to find something personal that interests the student and explore it.”
Some of the hands-on projects she has explored with her students include testing the water levels on a creek near the school, having the students write her letters about the books they read and learning about longitude and latitude through Geocaching, an adventure game where participates using global positioning devices to hunt down caches. Instead of using a book or a map, she took her students on a field trip and used Geocaching as an interactive way for students to learn. She said students found it exciting and a more interesting way to learn about global positioning.
With the award money, she plans to purchase new social studies textbooks for the fourth and fifth grades and buy new materials for the school’s library. “This award is not just about me, it benefits the school,” she said. Along with the school materials, she plans to take field trips to museums and historical sights and to bring in Lisa Oakley, director of Education at the East Tennessee Historical Society, to Porter Elementary to speak about community history.
Currently, Wagner is pursuing her doctorate in literacy at the University of Tennessee and is excited about next year and her new students. “I will just keep teaching and try to find new ways to teach,” she said. “It wears you out. It is an exhausting job. But I will keep at it as long as I can.”