Iowa Teacher of the Year shares lessons with future educators
BY KARYN SPORY
Mt. Pleasant News
After 25 years as an educator, Scott Slechta knew he was a good teacher. That was until he was teaching a lesson to his Fairfield High School students on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that made him re-evaluate what it was to be a good teacher – a transformation that would lead him to becoming 2016 Iowa Teacher of the Year.
“We have a goal to be an accomplished teacher, to be an effective teacher and a quality teacher,” he told a group of professors, teachers and education students at Iowa Wesleyan University. “At one point in my life, I was 25 years into teaching I knew I was accomplished, effective and I was a quality teacher. My units were all prepared, I had my computer usage scheduled and I had everything in the file drawer labeled and sequenced and copies made for the whole year.”
When he went to teach Julius Caesar that year, he decided to enhance the lesson by adding a section about ancient Rome and what the people would have worn “even though it had no consequence to the play.”
“But I’m an accomplished, effective and quality teacher. So I’m doing this huge lecture on what the togas looked like, what kind of shoes they wore and the colors and what they signified,” he recalled. “And then I have Tyler. He’s taking notes and he’s drawing and all of a sudden he goes, ‘Mr. Slechta, what are we doing?’”
That’s when Slechta had an epiphany.
“I realized I needed to change. I needed to be better. I needed to know not what we were teaching, but I needed to know why,” he said. “You need (to know) this sequence – who, why, what and how,” he told a dozen or so future teachers in attendance. “Who are the students, why am I teaching what I’m teaching, what am I teaching and what’s the best way to teach it.”
From there, Slechta handed out sheets of white construction paper to those in attendance and asked them to fold it “like a hamburger” so it could be used as a folder. Once they had created a folder, Slechta passed out crayons and asked they decorate the folder with their name and an icon that described them.
“You’re going to notice we color a lot in my classroom,” he said as he worked his way through the room, commenting on everyone’s folder and asking why they were drawing what they were drawing. Throughout the evening Slechta would call on individuals by name.
Once the folders were done, Slechta passed out a pile of papers, everything from his syllabus, to a rubric and even examples of classroom work. One example was a picture his students had colored. “I told you we do a lot of coloring in our classroom,” he said with a smile. The picture was colored during one of the first weeks of class, with the direction to not worry about coloring inside the lines.
“Just take a look at the pictures and see what you can derive about the student,” he instructed.
As they studied the pictures they surmised that one student did the bare minimum, another was very neat and detailed oriented while a third created a whole new drawing. Slechta said by learning who the students are, he better understands what kind of work they are capable of and how he can motivate them.
“It’s really cool that he’s teacher of the year for the state of Iowa and he’s in our own backyard,” said Becky Beckner, associate professor and teacher education program chair at Iowa Wesleyan. “He has fresh ideas for teaching strategy and shows (our students) they can still be silly.”
Beckner was also pleased to have a male teacher talking to her students as Iowa Wesleyan’s education professors are female.
Tina Sargent is a senior education major at Iowa Wesleyan and she was thrilled to be in attendance. “A lot of the stuff he’s said backs up what our teachers say in the classroom,” she said. “It makes me feel like I’m right on track.”
Sargent said she loved the handouts, especially the examples of classroom work. “I like examples of other teacher’s experiences,” she added.
Before the end of the night, Slechta left the future teachers with a few nuggets of advice. “Your first couple of years, you’re just going to form lessons,” he told the education students. “It’ll be functional. And then you’re going to reformat. You’ll become an accomplished, effective and quality teacher. Then you’ll transform.”
“But what you should know,” he continued, “is that the impact you make is important and that’s all up to you.”