Teacher of the Year Rhonda Holmes-Blankenship: “I want to be a voice for both teachers and students.”
High school English teacher Rhonda Holmes-Blankenship is Maryland’s newest Teacher of the Year. For Blankenship, an unremarkable student with stresses outside of school life, the intervention and encouragement of teachers helped her find new focus. As a teacher, Blankenship uses her experience to understand the roadblocks potentially successful students face, helping struggling students find their way to achievement and the prospect of a better life.
But that’s not all she brings to the classroom. She is a National Board Certified teacher who writes county curriculum, is a member of her School Improvement Team, participates in professional learning communities, facilitates school and county professional development, and mentors student teachers.
ActionLine spoke with Blankenship recently to learn more about her career, how she approaches her teaching practice, and her plans as Teacher of the Year.
How do you work with students to teach critical thinking skills when there is so much emphasis on standardized testing?
Ideally, when we teach critical thinking skills, we are preparing students for standardized tests. When I expose students to complex, thought-provoking texts and give them opportunities to explore, discuss, and write about those texts, I am helping them develop skills that will be assessed on standardized tests, but more importantly, I am preparing them college and demanding careers. Their success in life is the real measure of my success.
In what ways, beyond teaching in the classroom, have you become more connected to your profession?
The best professional development provides teachers opportunities to collaborate with one another. As I have sought opportunities to grow professionally, I have become more deeply connected to the profession by collaborating with my colleagues.
My mentor for the National Board Certification process was Josie Perry, a National Board Certified teacher at my school. It was invigorating to have a colleague evaluate my instruction with me, reading lesson plans, looking at student work samples, and watching video clips of my lessons.
Whether I am participating in a book study or writing curriculum, collaborating with my colleagues widens my perspective, enriches my practice, and reaffirms my commitment to the teaching profession.
What activities or professional development have been most empowering to you and helped you to feel that you are able to direct the course/future of teaching?
The National Board Certification process was critical in preparing me for the Race to the Top initiatives, especially the new teacher evaluation models. Prior to the NBC process, I was over-concerned with covering content; I felt pressured to have my students complete a certain number of units before the end of the semester.
However, achieving NBC is contingent on the teacher’s ability to demonstrate clear and consistent evidence of student growth, so I learned to focus more on my students’ mastery of standards rather than the quantity of content that we covered. Therefore, I definitely feel prepared to participate in a teacher evaluation system that involves discussions about and evidence of student growth.
As Teacher of the Year, what is your message to fellow teachers as you face the challenging dynamics of the classroom—class size, evolving technology and access to it, increasing cultural diversity, and constant struggles for funding?
Without minimizing the challenges in education, teachers need to focus on the solutions by learning as much as they can about their students, setting rigorous standards for learning, and then designing instruction that will help students achieve those standards.
Regardless of limitations in funding or access to technology, the best teaching is about relationships and hard work. If you are willing to immerse yourself in the process, constantly checking for student understanding and adjusting your instruction based on the needs of your students, your students will learn.
How do you think you can make an impact on the progress of teaching and learning as Maryland’s Teacher of the Year?
I want to be a voice for both teachers and students. I recently read an article in USA Today about how accomplished teachers, called “The Irreplaceables,” often feel that their voices are ignored and their talents are unrecognized. I would not be where I am today if not for teachers, those who helped me to grow as their student and those who continue to inspire me today as their colleague.
Dr. Lowery plans to hold Teacher Leader Conversations, bringing together teachers from across the state to share their experiences and ideas regarding current trends and policies in education. I attended the first meeting November 20, and I am looking forward to representing my colleagues.
As a voice for students, I want to emphasize the importance of preparing every student for the demands of college and careers. I was not a typical college-bound student, but my teachers made me want more for myself.
I believe that by empowering our best teachers and pushing every student to “want more,” we can keep the American Dream alive for this generation and the ones that will follow.