Secondary teacher of the year finalists range from theater arts instructor to science teacher


The 12 finalists for 2015 Dallas ISD Teacher of the Year are all distinguished teachers as measured by the Teacher Excellence Initative. There are the four finalists in the secondary teacher category. One of these teachers will be named the district’s 2015 teacher of the year at a special event being held Oct. 22. 

Angela Adams teaches sixth grade English at Sarah Zumwalt Middle School, where she is as likely to oversee a student pageant or step team as to conduct a training session for colleagues on STAAR reading strategies for at-risk students.

This campus go-to sponsor for oratorical contests, drill team and cheerleaders, sees student engagement as vital to promoting academic achievement. “Have sincere concern for your students and they will look to you for approval and guidance. Also, make sure you know your student’s data. Look at all historical data and be sure to give a pre-assessment. Allow the data to drive your instruction. The results received from interim assessments, ACP, and STAAR should be utilized to help determine the instructional needs of the students.”

Her involvement in campus activities garners praise from community members and colleagues alike, including Carol Johnson Munguia. “For 19 years, Angela has been committed to education with inner city students. She has implemented numerous programs such as the Mr. And Ms. Kennedy-Curry Pageant, homecoming dances, valentine court, college tours, mentor teacher, Cinco de Mayo, and department chair – an incredible track record of academic success and community involvement.”

Rachel Harrah has 16 years of teaching experience, the last three as Theater Arts teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School where she develops and presents seminars for colleagues and instructional leadership conferences across Dallas ISD and beyond.

Harrah sees the arts as a powerful tool to improve academic achievement in all subjects. “We could dramatically improve the engagement of our students by asking all teachers to be dually certified in a core and an artistic content. In theater, we use engagement strategies constantly and when we incorporate the same structures into a science classroom, the teacher is excited about teaching with passion and the kids are interested to see how they can incorporate music or art in a non-traditional way.”

Thomas Jefferson Principal Sandi Massey says Harrah has attracted the students, funding and community support necessary to build a superior theater program. “In four years, she has built one of the best programs in Dallas, growing from a mere 70 students to a total enrollment of 530 students. The students enrolled in theater programming make up over 30 percent of the student population, and the theater program is now one of the largest and most prominent programs in Dallas ISD.”

Elizabeth Pittman teaches 10th-grade science at H. Grady Spruce High School, where she began her career in 2010 and today serves as chair of the school science department and faculty advisory committee.

A veteran of Teach for America, Pittman continues to build her skills as a fellow of the Stanford University Hollyhock Fellowship program, which offers ongoing professional development and training to early career teachers. She views building positive relationships with students and recognizing achievement as key to engaging students. “A teacher can foster genuine relationships by appreciating, recognizing, and highlighting individual students. Teachers can attend students’ extracurricular activities, ask students how their families are doing, or write notes of recognition for students. Students need to know that this approach is genuine, which means that the teacher must frequently remind students how much he or she cares and wants to see them succeed.”

A former Spruce colleague attests to Pittman’s skill at relating to students. “The most prominent component of her classroom was her relationship with each and every student. It was utterly apparent that every student felt valued by Ms. Pittman, which in turn led to the students valuing the content, each other, and themselves. These strong relationships led to amazing classroom culture, where students had a sense of urgency and joy about the work.”

Aparna Sankararaman, better known as “Ms. Rara” to her 10-12th-grade science students at Woodrow Wilson High School, has students excited about taking her International Baccalaureate chemistry, biology and physics courses.

Since beginning her teaching career at Woodrow four years ago, Sankararaman has challenged students to brave the rigor of her advanced science courses while getting to know them by serving as sponsor for campus academic competitions.

She says student engagement has the power to transform passive learners into active ones. “My advice would be to establish a classroom culture right from the first day of school where students know to expect to be active learners, know to stay on-task and to participate actively in class proceedings because the learning environment is open and welcoming. Establishing these procedures takes time and practice on the teacher’s and students’ parts. Ultimately these procedures will pay off by setting up the classroom for student-centered learning.”

Physics student Ashley Watson says she is lucky to have Ms. Sankararaman as a teacher. “I have had the pleasure of having Ms. Sankararaman, or Ms. Rara as we fondly call her, as my teacher for the past three years. I first had her for pre-AP physics, a course which I was told by many that I would not enjoy and would have to suffer through. They clearly had never had Ms. Rara as their teacher. She began the year by describing her teaching philosophy and I immediately knew she was a teacher I would respect.”


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