UAB Alumni Serve As Alabama’s Top Teachers
By Javacia Harris Bowser
Alabama Teacher of the Year is much more than a title on a plaque. It’s a reward that carries great responsibility for the winning educators, who become the voice of teachers across the state. Here, three UAB School of Education alumni who have received the prestigious honor describe their time as education advocates.
Changing the Conversation
Since May 2013, when Alison Grizzle, Ed.D., became Alabama Teacher of the Year, she has met with students, fellow teachers, colleges, chambers of commerce, and school officials statewide, speaking at events focusing on everything from leadership to curriculum standards. It’s a demanding schedule for the math teacher at Birmingham’s Jackson-Olin High School, who earned her master’s in education at UAB in 1999. But it’s worth it if she can help change the national conversation about education, Grizzle says.
“There’s been a move over the last few years to paint teachers as part of the problem,” she says. “That’s not helping us recruit the youngest and brightest to the field. If we want our schools to remain competitive globally, we need the best in the classroom. We need people fighting to be teachers.”
Grizzle also would like to see measures of teacher performance that don’t simply rely on test scores. That would help avoid what Grizzle calls “painful” messages. Labeling a school as “failing” because it doesn’t reach particular benchmarks can discourage students and faculty when the school actually is improving, she notes. She also worries about the impact of such messages on the educational aspirations of students in poverty.
“I hear how American schools are failing, but we focus on educating all children,” Grizzle says. “Some countries we praise for education don’t provide it for everyone, so we’re comparing apples to oranges.
"If we want our schools to remain competitive globally, we need the best in the classroom. We need people fighting to be teachers.”
“All students can learn, but we don’t always create avenues so that all students can be successful,” she adds. One of her objectives as Teacher of the Year is to speak for disadvantaged students who are often underrepresented in conversations about education, she says.
Great teachers have both “passion and compassion,” Grizzle says. The passion must encompass both the content they teach and the learning process, she notes. “The kids will see the light in your eye and become excited just because of your excitement,” she says. “And you have to be compassionate because today’s youth go through so much. It’s not about letting students use their circumstances as an excuse, but giving them the scaffolding and support to rise above them.”
Champions for Learning
Tonya Perry, Ph.D., won the 2000 Alabama Teacher of the Year Award when she taught eighth-grade English at Hoover’s Berry Middle School. That led to meeting President George W. Bush and seeing the White House Rose Garden, but Perry believes the most significant part of her year was the time she spent visiting Alabama schools, including the day she read to elementary students in rural Russell County. “You would have thought I was Princess Diana,” Perry says with a laugh, recalling her warm welcome. “That reception is a constant reminder of the importance of teachers in the lives of their students.”
Perry also enjoyed meeting with Miles College students and professors. “It was enlightening to talk with people in teacher education and to get their feedback about teacher preparation,” she says. Today, Perry is in teacher education herself, serving as assistant professor of curriculum and instruction in UAB’s School of Education. Perry earned her master's in 1995 and her doctorate in 2007 in a joint program from UAB and the University of Alabama.
"The people who don't do the job as well tend to get the most attention. Teaching should be talked about in the affirmative more often.”
Perry believes there is a misconception about the overall quality of teachers in the education system. “The people who don’t do the job as well tend to get the most attention,” Perry says. “Teaching should be talked about in the affirmative more often.”
Perry is hopeful about the field’s future because of what she learned as Teacher of the Year. “Teachers do have a voice,” Perry says. “When we’re in our classrooms, we don’t always see how many people are championing us and our children.”
Great Teachers, Great Results
Ann Dominick, Ed.D., who earned her master’s at UAB in 1987, won the 1999 Alabama Teacher of the Year Award while teaching at South Shades Crest Elementary School. She says she enjoyed visiting classrooms across the state to help students and fellow teachers with math education and follow their progress. As a result, she became a math coach for Hoover City Schools. Now, as an assistant professor of elementary and early childhood education at UAB, Dominick still considers herself a math coach. “The age of the learner is different, but the learning is the same,” she says. “And the way I teach is the same. I’m still trying to find out where students are and take them forward.”
While traveling, Dominick also realized that the quality of education for students can vary drastically, even within a school. That’s something she would like to change about the education system, she says. “All kids should be able to have great teachers,” Dominick explains. “Great teachers know how to listen. They have a passion for people and for learning. They know how to find out where students are and help them advance to the next stage. They believe all students can learn.”
"Great teachers know how to listen. They have a passion for people and for learning.”
Dominick doesn’t believe in quick fixes for education problems, however. “There’s no one-size-fits-all solution that will take care of everything, whether it’s charter schools or anything else,” she says. She also disagrees with attempts to apply business models to education. “When teachers know content well, when they know how children learn, and when they have a passion for helping children learn, you get results,” she says.