Although their work environments and experiences differ, Plano ISD’s 2014-15 teachers of the year, Jennifer Denton and Lilli Wisler, share common bonds.
Both teachers said they possess a strong passion for helping students reach their full potential regardless of their challenges. The teachers were honored among 70 other educators at a gala May 14 at Plano Centre. The nominees were selected by campus peers and were interviewed by school district selection committee members.
“Lilli has enthusiasm, she’s creative … and is the face of young teachers,” said Beth Webb, community representative on the selection committee. “Jennifer has that same level of enthusiasm and … continues to reinvent herself [and]helps those kids one at a time.”
Wisler, who teaches fifth grade at Barron Elementary School, grew up in Plano and has been a teacher in her hometown for eight years. Wisler said she found her calling early on and was inspired by her fourth-grade teacher.
“When [my fourth-grade teacher]found out that I got [the]Teacher of the Year [award], she left me a voice mail. She started crying in the middle of her message saying how proud she was of me,” Wisler said. “I tell my students [to]find out what [their]passions are because [they]can start thinking about [their]career paths now.”
Wisler said she enjoys uncovering each student’s strengths and allowing those gifts to flourish in the classroom.
“Each school year I begin as if every child were a blank canvas,” said Wisler in a statement about her teaching philosophy. “My classroom is like a family in the same way that our school is like a family. Each year has been a growing process for me, and I eagerly anticipate future years to share my experience and to keep learning and developing as an educator.”
Denton is a dyslexia therapist who has been teaching at Wilson Middle School for 20 years and specializes in special education. She also helps students considered at risk for failure.
Denton is also a resource math teacher and follows in the footsteps of her sister, Christine Nightingale, who received Plano ISD’s Elementary Teacher of the Year Award in 2011.
“Even as a little girl, I remember wanting to teach,” Denton said. “I remember getting all of my worksheets … and using my mother’s ironing board as my desk and … trying to emulate the teachers. I didn’t realize I wanted to do special education until my senior year in high school. That’s when I realized this was my calling.”
Growing up as a minority in her community, Denton said her fourth-grade teacher helped her overcome adversity and be a successful student.
“I did get bullied because of my skin color, and she was always the one saying, ‘You can do this,’” said Denton. “I just loved her because she made me feel safe regardless of what was going on outside [of the classroom].”
Denton said she has carried this experience with her throughout her career and tells her students with the start of each year that they are safe in her class.
“I am their cheerleader when no on else is cheering for them,” Denton said in a statement about her teaching philosophy. “I am giving them hope at a time that seems hopeless to them.”
Grace under testing pressure
While testing pressure can be a challenge for students and teachers alike, Denton and Wisler believe the best way to balance test preparation with creativity and exploration is by making learning more engaging.
“Sometimes they do so well in school but then they don’t pass the STAAR [test]… and that’s the hard part,” said Denton. “You have to
convince them that that is just one little piece and help them look at the big picture.”
Wisler incorporates games into her curriculum and is a proponent for changing the way children think using modern technology.
“We do so much to get the kids ready for the STAAR [test], but it doesn’t look like STAAR prep. [For example], I love charades,” Wisler said. “We’re taking the stuff that they need to know and making it fun for them.”
Plano ISD students win national recognition
Students at Rice Middle School won Best in Nation this year in the Verizon Innovative App Challenge. The Mind Glass app allows dyslexic students to customize text for reading and comprehension.
“What’s now [available for students with] dyslexia is so much more than it was three or four years ago,” Denton said. “You can provide accommodations, but that’s not helping them in the long run.”