Editor’s note: This article appears in the latest magazine edition of Talk Business & Politics, which you can access online here.
Adamant that ‘education equity should be at the forefront of the state and national conversation’ and that schools should teach students ‘how to think, not what to think,’ this school year away from the classroom has been a valuable, enriching time for Arkansas’ 2014 Teacher of the Year.
Jonathan Crossley has been traveling Arkansas and seeing first-hand its challenges, problems and opportunities in education.
As the 2014 Arkansas Teacher of the Year, he’s spent the 2014-15 school year working with the state Department of Education. He’s been providing professional development and assisting school districts, educational organizations and affiliates through speaking engagements, policy discussions and research. In the process, he’s put about 35,000 miles on his car, a significant amount of that being work-related.
Crossley, 26, a native of Gaffney, S.C., holds a B.A. in political science from the University of South Carolina and a M.Ed. in educational leadership from Arkansas Tech University.
Previously an 11th- and 12th-grade English and oral communications teacher at Palestine-Wheatley High School, he’s used to doing a little bit of everything and helping out in just about any way he can.
Check his resume or his LinkedIn page and you can see what undoubtedly impressed the Teacher of the Year judges. For example:
• His students grew from 36% proficiency to 92% proficiency on the Arkansas state literacy exam. He says this was the highest proficiency rate in school history and the highest in eastern Arkansas.
• Crossley’s students averaged 5.6 points growth on American College Test (ACT), and grew an average of 2.8 years in their reading levels.
While at Palestine-Wheatley for four years, the former high school basketball star and college walk-on at South Carolina coached girls’ basketball and directed the first school play at the high school in 27 years. He also was the literacy coach for grades six through 12.
He was placed there as part of the Teach For America organization whose mission is to “eliminate educational inequity by enlisting high-achieving recent college graduates and professionals to teach” for at least two years in low-income communities throughout the U.S.
In an interview, he comes across as friendly, articulate, eager to help make a difference and fervent in his belief in education and its power in bringing hope and improvement to impoverished areas like the Arkansas Delta. Despite his South Carolina roots, “I’ve made a home here in Arkansas,” Crossley said. “I think about myself here in Arkansas and how I can impact change.”
He enjoys movies and meeting new people and, oh yeah, still sports a basketball buzz cut. He’s in the middle of applying for more opportunities and optimistic about the future. His other honors include a Lowell Milken Award for Unsung Heroes and a Fishman Prize for Superlative Classroom Practice. He’s currently a regional finalist for a White House Fellowship. We caught up with him recently in the offices of the state Department of Education.
TB&P: What initially drew you to teaching?
Crossley: I was the first person in my family to go to college. Growing up, I wanted to be a lawyer to impact social change. Upon reflection, I discovered that my true values most closely aligned with teaching in underserved communities. When I look into my students’ eyes I see myself. I see my father. I see my mother. The call is urgent. Teaching can significantly impact social change. The profession has changed my life for the better.
TB&P: What do you love about what you do?
Crossley: The mutual love and respect that can be built within a classroom drives me. Students respond to high expectations and transparency. In return, both my students and I grow in unexpected and profound ways.
TB&P: Since you were the drama director, we have to ask – favorite movie?
Crossley: “Forrest Gump.”
TB&P: What impact did your year as Teacher of the Year have on you and what were some of the highlights?
Crossley: This year has deeply enriched my self-efficacy and professional perspective. I cannot currently gauge the long-term impact of the TOY experience. As I grow as a practitioner and advocate, I will undoubtedly reflect on lessons learned from this year and harness strength.
Some highlights: watching my mother’s face as she brushed shoulders with the president of the United States, and speaking with countless Arkansas teachers across the state – listening to their concerns in an effort to better advocate for their needs.
TB&P: You’ve had a chance to attend – and often address – meetings of education decision-makers. Do you feel like your voice was heard?
Crossley: Certainly. In my experience, Arkansas policymakers want to represent the will of the people. Republicans and Democrats alike have sought out my opinion on education topics ranging from teacher leadership to testing standards. I felt valued and heard in most every encounter.
TB&P: What are your thoughts about education in Arkansas and how it can be improved?
Crossley: Education equity should be at the forefront of the state and national conversation. Zip code should not determine school quality. In this vein, teacher retention – especially in underserved communities – is an issue of dire consequence. We need to keep the best and brightest in the field of education – committed to working in underperforming districts.
TB&P: What do we need to keep in mind in preparing young people for today’s job market, and how can we make sure students have the necessary skills to join the workforce upon completion of their schooling?
Crossley: Critical thinking and the ability to collaborate across ideological lines are vital for the 21st century. We cannot accurately predict the job market 10 years from now. The most effective way to prepare students relies on teaching them how to think, not what to think.
TB&P: If you could share just one thought with fellow teachers, what would it be?
Crossley: To evoke the words of Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” At times the conversation concerning education can be polarizing; however, we must remain hopeful. Education is a noble and rewarding profession. We must bind together to reinforce a positive narrative about our profession. Teachers are leaders. Schools across Arkansas are depending on teachers to spur the state forward. Most centrally, we must never forget our reasoning for becoming teachers. Our personal narratives, rich in conviction and purpose, will enable us to work well beyond the proverbial bell to impact students’ lives.
TB&P: For new teachers coming into the profession, what advice would you offer them?
Crossley: One, be intentional about building a growth mindset. Do not be afraid of failure. Excellence in the classroom depends on continual improvement. Perseverance coupled with ongoing personal reflection leads to a joyful and wise teacher. Author your own professional development.
Two, remain hopeful. Students of all ages reflect the attitudes and dispositions of their teachers. Relationships not programs will lead to the most long-term improvements for students and schools.
TB&P: Finally, one word that best sums you up.