Although their work environment and experiences differ, Plano ISD’s 2014-15 Teachers of the Year Jennifer Denton and Lilli Wisler share many common bonds.
The most evident of these is their passion for helping each student reach their full potential regardless of their challenges.
The teachers were honored among 70 other educators at a gala on May 14 at Plano Centre. The nominees were selected by campus peers and were interviewed by school district selection committee members.
"Lilli comes across as a wonderful role model. she has enthusiasm, she's creative and passionate and very genuine. She appears she can really connect with her students. She is the face of young teachers," said Beth Webb, a community representative on the selection committee. "Jennifer has that same level of enthusiasm and love for her profession but she [also] has all those years of experience. She continues to reinvent herself [and] helps those kids one at a time. She's affecting a lot of lives. She believes in them and nurtures them and it's amazing what [these students] can do with that [kind of] support."
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 … and she started crying in the middle of her message saying how proud she was of me,” said Wisler. “I tell my students all the time [to] find out what [their] passions are because [they] can start thinking about [their] career paths now.”
Focusing on passion and developing positive mindsets and rapport in her classroom, 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,” Wisler said 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.
The resource math teacher 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,” said Denton. “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 it was her fourth grade teacher who helped her overcome adversity and push her onward to success.
“I did get bullied because of my skin color and she was always the one saying, ‘You can do this,’” Denton said. “I just loved her because she made me feel safe regardless of what was going on outside [of the classroom].”
Denton has carried this experience with her throughout her career, telling 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 performance pressure can be a challenge for students and teachers alike, Denton and Wisler said they believe the best way to balance test preparation with creativity and exploration is by making learning more hands-on and 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."
To offset heavy time spent in textbooks, Wisler incorporates rotating stations and games into her curriculum. Although she said technology is not required for fun learning, Wisler is a proponent for changing the way children think through today’s technological advances.
“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. We play it all the time with our vocabulary words,” said Wisler. “We’re taking the stuff that they need to know and applying it and making it engaging and fun for them. You can trick them into learning almost because they don’t know that they are getting a whole lot of review and they are doing a whole lot of work [in the process].”
Shaping students with learning disabilities
In February, students at Rice Middle School won Best in Nation in the third Verizon Innovative App Challenge. The app, Mind Glass, offers students with dyslexia options for customizing text to make it easier for them to read and comprehend. Denton said the app has been a tremendous benefit to her, her students and other teachers throughout the district.
Denton also received her dyslexia therapist certification through Scottish Rite Hospital’s Take Flight program. The curriculum for the 2- year, multi-sensory reading program builds on the success of the hospital’s alphabetic phonics, dyslexia training and literacy programs.
With the help of Mind Glass and the Take Flight program, teachers like Wisler and Denton are working together to help students with learning disabilities achieve accomplishments never seen before.
“What’s now [available for students with] dyslexia is so much more than even three or four years ago. Plano [ISD] paying for us to go [into the Take Flight program] is just incredible because this program is incredible and I’ve seen the gains,” said Denton. “You can provide accommodations [for these students] but that’s not helping them in the long-run. In this program, you’re helping them to learn. I have to get them ready to be in [Wisler’s] classroom.”