Crockett High School educator Sarah Dille, Austin ISD's 2013 Teacher of the Year, said that when she can help students make connections between their interests and what they learn in the classroom, they are willing to take on more challenges.
Dille, who has been a teacher for 13 years, teaches English and writing to ninth- through 11th-grade students at Crockett. She is also a member of the school's technology committee and is the chairwoman of Crockett's English department.
In addition to leading seminars on how to help students improve their reading skills, she has helped professional development groups establish engaging writing curricula to target students struggling with STAAR-level writing. Dille said it is her core belief that it is the responsibility of teachers to provide their students with tools they need to become problem solvers, be independent thinkers and apply their knowledge.
What are some of the most interesting strategies or projects that you have incorporated into your teaching?
This year my [advanced placement] English III students completed digital storytelling projects based on their own interests. Students designed projects that focused on research questions they designed—everything from "What is the significance of sneaker culture?" to "Which of the five senses creates the most emotional impact?" They incorporated the skills of argumentation that I had been teaching them—appeals, concessions and rebuttals, specific evidence—into a digital presentation exploring their question using an app called VoiceThread. Students were then able to watch and comment on their peers' presentation.
What advice would you give to a new teacher?
The first few years of teaching are so hard. I would tell new teachers to seek out good mentors. I was so lucky in both my first school in Massachusetts and here at Crockett to work with amazing teachers who helped me learn how to plan wisely, how to manage my classroom and how to balance all the many demands placed daily on teachers.
What are some of the biggest challenges today's Central Texas high school students are facing, and what solutions do you suggest?
One of the biggest challenges facing my students is keeping their love of learning alive in an educational culture that is sometimes too focused on testing. Students don't want to learn for a test; they want to learn for their own betterment. I am hopeful that the Legislature is working on a solution to this problem with House Bill 5. Lowering the number of tests students have to pass will not, as some argue, lower the standard, but instead it will return the freedom of teachers to raise the standard beyond a test, to really push students past bubbles and boxes to real-world applications and project-based learning that is so much more challenging and beneficial to students in the long run.
What skills would you say are most important for graduating seniors in Austin who are preparing to pursue post-secondary education or enter the workforce?
Writing is among the most important skills no matter where a student is headed after high school. Writing is, at its best, just good thinking. Every day in my writing class, we write because writing is, to me, a vital part of living, not just a skill for a four-hour test. I think students also need to be able to work collaboratively, both in a college environment and out in the workforce. Understanding how to navigate the demands of true collaborative work is a vital skill.
What do you like best about your job?
On my first day of student teaching, my cooperating teacher asked all of the students to write me notes introducing themselves. One student wrote, "We are teachers and pupils of ourselves; you are here to guide us." Thirteen years later, those words still ring in my head. That day the words of this very astute seventh-grader intimidated me a bit, but it took me no time at all to realize that she was exactly right. And now, deep into my teaching career, I cannot think of a better way of saying what she so aptly and simply wrote. It is days where I watch it all happen in front of me, where the students guide themselves deeper in their learning and I just listen and learn, feeling like the student and not the teacher, that make me believe I have the best job in the world.