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Utah's Teacher of the Year on effective education, school grades, Common Core

Published: Sunday, Oct. 13 2013 3:25 p.m. MDT

Newly named Utah Teacher of the Year, Foxboro Elementary's Allison P. Riddle, works with one of her students Ayla Honneywell in class Monday, Oct. 7, 2013.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

NORTH SALT LAKE — Foxboro Elementary School teacher Allison Riddle started her week like many others, working with students in her fifth-grade class and preparing for parent-teacher conferences.

There was little out of the ordinary, considering that on Oct. 4 she was named Utah's Teacher of the Year, an honor that includes a check for $10,000, an interactive Smart Board for her classroom, a laptop computer, a $250 Visa gift card and a future meeting with the president of the United States.

"The kids are excited. They are very excited about the Smart Board," Riddle said. "I feel kind of silly, actually. There are so many good teachers. There are dozens of amazing teachers. I’m just someone that enjoys it."

But to the administrators and staff of Foxboro Elementary and Davis School District, there is nothing silly about Riddle's win. An educator for 25 years, Riddle is known for blending both the science and art of teaching and for helping less-experienced educators develop their skills.

"It’s a huge honor to the school to have Allison not only nominated but then to win," Foxboro Assistant Principal Jake Heidrich said. "It’s very deserved by her. She is an excellent teacher."

In Riddle's classroom, nothing is an assumed skill, Heidrich said. Riddle takes the time to teach students how to line up and how to retrieve and replace materials, which contributes to more effective lessons, he said.

Heidrich also works with Riddle on a school mentoring committee for provisional teachers at Foxboro Elementary. During class periods where her students are engaged with a task they can work on individually, she'll take first- and second-year teachers into the classroom of more experienced educators to point out best practices.

"There’s a lot of great teaching in this school, and it’s great to pull these new teachers out and have them go watch it," Riddle said. "But you have to have somebody else with you that can point certain small things out."

Davis School District spokesman Chris Williams said Riddle was already on the district's radar before the awards ceremony. He described her as an educator with a passion for teaching who goes out of her way to help her students, as well as her fellow educators.

"This is the first time Davis School District has ever had the Teacher of the Year," Williams said. "We’re more than pleased. We’re tickled."

Riddle said the biggest challenge facing Utah's schools — besides having the lowest per-pupil spending in the country — is an increasingly negative attitude toward public education from community members.

She said Utah teachers are doing amazing things with the resources available to them, but many people forget the role a public school plays in giving children a safe space, off the streets, where they can learn reading, writing and arithmetic.

If the public perception were more positive, Riddle said, parents would be more inclined to support teaching efforts by getting involved with their child's homework and schooling, and private businesses would be more willing to support school initiatives.

"We’re all in this together," she said. "It’s a public program that benefits everyone, not just that cute little kid that sits in that desk."

But the key to improving the public perception is trust, Riddle said, and it's up to educators to develop a trusting relationship with children and their parents.

"If (a student) has a supportive parent at home that will get on board with me and really review things every night, I can do good things," she said.

Riddle said she has been involved in the planning of family math and literacy nights where community members are invited to attend academic activities at the neighborhood school. She said that type of public outreach helps develop an atmosphere where a school is a community center and not just a public day care where parents drop off their children on their way to work.

"The schools would need to do that," Riddle said. "They’d have to set up some activities to get more parents in so they would trust the teachers at the school to help them help the kids."

If she were given carte blanche to improve education Utah, Riddle said she would start by lowering class sizes.

Her current class has 33 students, which is above average for fifth grade but not an anomaly in the state.

Riddle said the large group makes it difficult to give individual attention to every student. During reading time, for example, she said she uses a clipboard to rotate through the class on a predetermined schedule.

"I can actually teach each child one-on-one if you lower the class size," Riddle said.

In addition to a large classroom, Utah's Teacher of the Year also teaches at a C school, according to school grades released last month. The grades are based on student test scores and have been criticized by many in the education community for painting too narrow a portrait of school performance considering the stigma attached to a failing grade.

Riddle said she welcomes an evaluation of a school's performance but added that there are contributing factors that affect a student's test score that are not reflected in the grades.

"You could’ve honestly predicted a lot of those grades by ZIP code," she said. "There’s so many other things that go into a test score. A test score, for me, is not a child."

Riddle also weighed in on the controversial Common Core State Standards, which define the minimum skills students should learn in each grade and have been adopted by all but four states.

She said a set of common standards is beneficial to the professional development of teachers, who often attend training conferences out of state that don't fully align with the standards back home.

"You can walk into a conference and feel confident that you’re getting ideas and supplies that will fit your standards," Riddle said.

She also said the new standards are not radically different from the state's previous standards, which were routinely tweaked themselves every few years.

Effective teaching, Riddle said, is less about the specific content than it is the use of classroom management and best practices to give students the help they need.

"Give it to me. I can teach it," she said. "If you can teach well, you can teach anything. Except for, like, physics."

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com

Twitter: bjaminwood

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