An Interview with Wisconsin Teacher of the Year, Maureen Look-Ainsworth — MU Alum

By Bill Henk — The date of September 10, 2010, represented a red letter day in the history of Marquette University.  When the four Wisconsin Teachers of the Year were announced in Madison, three of them had Marquette roots!

Peggy Wuenstel (Special Services), Claudia Felske (High School), and Maureen Look-Ainsworth (Middle School) joined Michael Brinen (Elementary Education) as honorees that day.  I honestly wondered if any institution had ever put that many Wisconsin award-winning teachers on the stage at the same time before.  All are pictured at left above with State Superintendent, Dr. Tony Evers.

For the record, Peggy is an alumnus of the College of Health Sciences, Claudia is an alumnus of Arts and Sciences, and Maureen is an alumnus of the School of Education.

By the way, mark your calendars for Thursday, April 14, the evening tentatively set for a panel discussion with these three extraordinary Marquette alumni in the Weasler Auditorium.   Final details will be provided as soon as they’re known.

At some point following the awards ceremony, Maureen received recognition as the Wisconsin Teacher of the Year, and she is now competing for the title of National Teacher of the Year (NTOY).   She is a seventh and eighth grade science teacher at Horning Middle School in the School District of Waukesha.

Recently Maureen agreed to a blog interview, and my questions and her thoughtful answers appear below.  At the time of my request, she was also working on her NTOY application as well as writing for her National Board certification, so we’re especially grateful to her for taking the time to respond.

Please note that Part I on the interview will run today and Part II will run tomorrow.

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What has being named the 2010 Wisconsin Teacher of the Year meant to you, Maureen?

It has meant that I am being recognized for all the hard work and extra projects that I have put into all of the schools where I have taught.  It also means that I represent so many other hard-working teachers, my school, Horning Middle School, and the School District of Waukesha who have been collaborative in many ways to inspire me to create all that this award recognizes.

This wonderful honor has already opened doors for me that I wished to pursue but didn’t have the chance to pursue until now. Throughout all of the long nights, inquiry-based projects, new units, and social injustices that I have sought to correct, I went about quietly through this work. I didn’t expect any honors or awards, I just did what was right to make this world a better place.

The journey began when I was recognized by one individual who nominated me for the Kohl award.  Then the Kohl Foundation named me the WI Middle School Teacher of the Year.  After completing a lengthy and difficult interview process, I was then named the WI Teacher of the Year, and it has just thrilled me.  But, it’s a lot more work, because I’m still teaching full-time.  So I must keep my life balanced and poised for what it coming next.

How did you first become inspired to pursue teaching as a career?

As a Marquette university undergraduate student, I studied in Physical therapy for the first year and a half until one day I asked myself, “What contribution will I make to the world at large as a physical therapist?  Is there another field that I would find more satisfying that would impact the world with greater depth?” It was then I decided to enter the field of teaching, where I found satisfaction in each and every course and child I taught, touching lives one at a time, wanting no child to fail. As I endeavored to change lives, the children I taught as well as my own children changed my life.

As a child who endured poverty myself, I found education as the means to transcend the misfortune of class.  As a newly married mother of two, newly divorced, I found myself right back in similar circumstances of poverty.  I was determined neither my own children nor my students would experience the poverty of education in my classroom or home.

I wrote grants, I brought clothes and food to school, provided tutoring afterschool, ran math contests, co-coordinated Boxes of Love, Thanksgiving and Christmas boxes of food for disadvantaged families of Horning Middle school, coordinated fundraising activities and Medieval fashion shows, created carnivals to provide for the needs of so many disadvantaged children.  I arranged field trips, hands-on activities and incorporated guest speakers such as polymer scientists, chemists, engineers, firefighters, detectives, former students who had gone on to further education  to provide a springboard upon which my students could dream just like those who lived on the other side of the tracks.

What gives you the greatest joy in teaching?

The joy that I receive from teaching is exemplified in an email I recently received after being awarded the Teacher of the Year:

“My daughter is now attending the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Kayla didn’t really like science in 7th grade but in 8th grade you taught her to love science, especially chemistry. When she went to high school, she took every science course she could. She is now considering a degree in biochemistry!”

Turning students’ attitudes and perspectives positively toward science is what gives me my greatest joy!  I have parents who want to join my class for the Forensics Science and Crime Scene Investigation where I stage a mock crime scene, complete with blood spatter, fingerprint analysis, white powder analysis, footprint and tire print analysis, etc. It is an exciting course to be part of!

What is the biggest challenge or frustration you experience as a teacher?

My biggest frustration as a teacher is the lack of time with each child.  I have approximately 160 middle level students each day through five classes and it is difficult to teach the lab, help the kids and still have some time to get to know them personally.  I run an Adventure Science Club which allows me more time to spend with them.  I also wish I had more time to collaborate with my science colleagues on hands-on inquiry lessons and standards and learning targets.  Another big challenge is meeting the social, emotional and physical needs of many disadvantaged children throughout the school.

If you could change only one thing about any aspect of K-12 education, what would it be?

I would light a fire in the eye of the public to show how important and honored teachers should be treated!  Many, many educators spend so much of their personal time, taking work home, helping and tutoring students, calling home to help with concerns, caring so much for students. The public as a whole needs to see the how fitting it is to treat teachers respectfully, with dignity.

Too many times, teachers and the school systems of America are used as stepping-stones for some other political interest or taken for granted.  There must be a change of attitude! We spend our time, money, family time, summers, preparing for the year ahead.  Education as a whole is a celebration of how each and every teacher can change the world one student at a time!

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