Award winning teacher offers message of hope

Award-winning teacher offers message of hope

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Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan

It’s easy to see why Sarah Brown Wessling was named the 2010 National Teacher of the Year. On Nov. 14, she offered positive, encouraging and hopeful messages to more than 400 Minnesota rural educators. Many of her ideas seem as relevant to families and students as they are to educators.

Speaking at the annual Minnesota Rural Education Association conference, Brown Wessling cited research on people whom she described as “survivors” – people who overcome challenges and difficulties.

She says survivors:

–Focus on “what’s in front of them.”

–See “getting angry as a waste of time.”

–“Are optimistic, unflappable and open-minded.”

–Use different methods to solve problems, rather than relying on just one approach.

Sarah Brown Wessling, 2010 National Teacher of the Year, poses for a photo with Fred Nolan, executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association. Brown Wessling spoke at the MREA's annual conference Nov. 14. (Photo by Joe Nathan)

Sarah Brown Wessling, 2010 National Teacher of the Year, poses for a photo with Fred Nolan, executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association. Brown Wessling spoke at the MREA’s annual conference Nov. 14. (Photo by Joe Nathan)

Brown Wessling also modeled another valuable quality: the willingness to acknowledge and learn from mistakes. Her presentation included a video that had been filmed in her high school English classroom by the national cable Teaching Channel. The first time that cameras came to the class in Johnston, Iowa, her lesson plan did not work well. She concluded that the directions she’d given to students were too complex.

She did not blame the students. Instead, she revised the instructions. That worked much better.

Brown Wessling wasn’t saying students always are right. But she was pointing out that sometimes she makes mistakes and that the wise approach is to acknowledge and correct them.

She cited Michael Jordan, the hugely successful professional basketball player, as a great example of someone who sometimes failed but did not give up. She pointed out, for example, that 26 times he was asked to make a game-winning shot, but missed it. He did not give up. Instead, he continued practicing. And, as basketball fans know, Jordan helped lead his team to many championships.

Brown Wessling cited the Al Siebert Resiliency Center as a valuable source of information about how successful people make mistakes and learn from them. More information is at

Brown Wessling also cited the example of IDEO, a company that helps organizations fix mistakes. She’s met with them and learned that before they develop a successful solution to a complex problem, they often try as many as 90 different approaches.

That led her to explain one of her beliefs as a parent of three youngsters, ages 6, 10 and 12, and as an 18-year veteran of public school teaching. She is not a fan of simple formulas for parenting or teaching. Yes, there are certain key principles, described above, about successful people. But she encourages people to look beyond tight “scripts” that are sometimes presented as “the answer.” As she explained, “The truth is that in order to be good, you have to let go of the script.”

Brown Wessling strongly encourages educators to move away from lecturing and toward helping students actively discover and create. She asks them, for example, to think about characters in books her students read, like “The Crucible.” What do her students think about how these characters dealt with the problems they faced? Which of those strategies would be useful for her students? Which would not work well for students in 2016?

Despite her award and many requests to speak, she continues to teach part time in Johnston, Iowa. She also writes a weekly column where she responds to questions. You can read it at

Like all of us, Brown Wessling has faced problems and challenges. But I think she’s developed very constructive ways to respond.

Fred Nolan, MREA’s executive director, told me it took three years to work out a day for her to speak in Minnesota. I’m very glad he showed the kind of persistence Brown Wessling recommends.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is director of the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at