The Inspiring Teacher Project

"Mike Roberts draws on interviews with many of our most dedicated, honored, and celebrated teachers to get insights and examples of what it means to be a teacher. We all learn best by examples and analogies, and these teachers prove that time and again. This should be required reading for all who enter the teaching profession." Dr. Max Thompson, Founder of Learning Focused Inc.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Remembering Harriett Ball 1946-2011


Harriett’s teaching has been showcased on Oprah, BET, The Early Show, the Apollo Theater, the Republican National Convention, 60 Minutes, CNN and C-SPAN. She has been nominated for the Brock Award twice and was recently inducted into the National Charter Schools Hall of Fame.

Years after starting her teaching career, Harriett Ball discovered what she calls a God-given talent to use rhyme and music to teach just about anything. While teaching in Houston she mentored David Levin who, along with Mike Feinberg, have gone on to start over one hundred of the most celebrated charter schools in America. The KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) schools get their name from Harriett’s song, Read Baby Read.

What do you want your legacy to be?

Harriett: I want to be remembered that I made a difference in the lives of students and teachers. I hope they see me as someone who unveiled the genius that was within them. I want to bring the joy back to teaching for the new teachers and the old ones that have lost their joy. I want to inspire those teachers who have been stifled by the cookie-cutter initiatives of school districts. I want to be remembered as someone that helped create schools that kids enjoyed attending. I want kids to say that school is a good place to be. I want kids to have the attitude of I can’t wait to show what I know. That was our morning chant. I would ask the kids “What class is this?” They would say:

This is the class

That has the kids

That want to learn

To read more books

To build a better tomorrow!

Hey! Ho!

Because the more I read

The more I know

The more I know

The more I grow

And the more I talk

The less I know

Because knowledge is power

And power is freedom

And I want it!

What do you want?

I want knowledge!

Another chant I used went like this:

I can’t wait to get to school

To see what I can see

I want to learn all I can learn

So I can be all I can be

If I have the right attitude

And stop being so rude

Bring my tools and follow the rules

I can set myself free

Yea, free to be anything I want to be

We’ve got hard working teachers here

Who do more than their share

What is it that makes me to act like hmm,

I don’t care

I’ve got to do my part

And I’m talking to you straight from the heart

We will be working with charts and graphs

And converting wholes to halves

We will be reading and writing

Boy this is exciting.

I’ll be all I can be

Yea school is the place for me!

Wow! You are showing the world how we can bring that positive spirit back to teaching and getting kids pumped about learning.

Harriett: It can be done. It can be done without a book if you know your stuff. You don’t need a book. Use the book for homework after you have taught. Don’t give homework on anything you have not personally taught yourself. All kids don’t get taught and all kids don’t learn the same way. I want my legacy to be that I made a difference. I really want to be like Martin Luther King in that everybody knows that Harriett Ball made a difference in that schools are using my techniques so that all students and teachers can enjoy school and have better products, meaning the kids. I want the kids to come out inspired, doing well, and college bound. There will be no doors closed to them. Now that’s a legacy.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

One-on-One with Randy Wormald; 2005 Disney High School Teacher of the Year


Randy teaches Mathematics at Belmont High School in
Belmont, New Hampshire.
  • 2005 Disney High School Teacher of the Year
  • 2005 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year
  • 2010 Top 5 Finalist for the Great American Teacher Award
Pictured below is Randy Wormald riding an electric motorcycle built in his classroom by his students!
What are some ways that you get kids excited about math? If a teacher is not careful, math can turn into working problems the whole period. From what I know of you, it seems you have a gift of relating it to the real world.
Randy: For me it’s about building relationships within the classroom so that you can mix it up and get a little crazy with making your instruction relevant to the real world. Not every single lesson in math has to be relevant, though. For example, you wouldn’t say, “This is how completing the square is used in the real world.” Those lessons are more for showing kids the thought process or a logical approach to things.
     We do a lot of projects and sometimes I tell them I don’t have all the answers. We built an electric motorcycle that is street legal and can be driven on the roads. During the project when I said, “I don’t have any idea,” they were like, “Come on, just tell us.” We undertake real world projects dealing with math that we sometimes have to figure out together. I let them know that you don’t have to know all the answers to tackle a problem or project.
How specifically to math did you tie the motorcycle project?
Randy:  We pulled in a number of different things. Anything from design aspects to measuring and calculating were used. We had to calculate the needed surface area to put certain types of batteries and space to switch them out. That in it self took in many geometry aspects. We started with just a dirt bike frame and extended it out an additional 30 inches. Students had to calculate the used voltage on the batteries after a certain amount of driving time. They talked about gear ratios to determine what sprockets we should use in the front and the back of the motorcycle. This led to discussions like, “Do we want the motorcycle to go really fast and maybe not so far or did we want to extend it so that we can drive it further without so much low-end power when taking off from a stop?” The electric motorcycle project pulled in quite a few different aspects of math, from basic measurement to geometry to gear ratios and things of that nature.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

One-on-One with Glenn Lid (2004 Disney High School Teacher of the Year)

Glenn Lid teaches Chemistry at Proviso East High School located in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

  • 2004 Disney High School Teacher of the Year
  • 1993 Finalist for the Presidential Award for Math and Science
  • 2007 Illinois Chemistry Teacher of the Year (Davidson Award)

·         2007 Golden Apple Teacher of Distinction

  • 2005 Elmhurst College Alumni Merit Award
  • 2009 State Finalist: Presidential Award for Teaching Math and Science
  • Two-time nominee: Assistant Coach of the Year in Wrestling by I.W.O.C.A
Glenn Lid was determined to use his life to help others. When becoming a doctor didn’t work out, he went on to inspire others to do more with their lives than they thought possible. He is a living example that adversity breeds opportunity. After 31 years he is still going strong at Proviso East High School in Chicago Illinois.

I understand that you have done something very unusual this year with your Nuclear Chemistry unit. Will you please describe your strategy?

Glenn: For many years when I teach about Nuclear Chemistry I ask my students, “How many of you have ever heard of what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945?” It is always shocking to me to see only 1 or 2 hands go up in my entire classroom. This year I made a short questionnaire and gave it to all science students in the school. The questionnaire had questions like, “Do you know what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan in 1945?” “Do you know what the letters WMD stand for?” “Do you know what happened in Chernobyl, Russia in 1986?” “Do you know what happened at 3 Mile Island in 1979?” The results were just stunning. 90% of the students knew nothing about any of those events.

      I tried to think of ways that would show the kids the power of nuclear energy. I also wanted them to understand its potential impact on an emotional level. I remembered the movie The Freedom Writers and how powerful the end of the movie was when the kids got to meet with the Holocaust survivor who helped Anne Frank. I started thinking of a way to have my students meet a survivor of Hiroshima? When I began searching the web I found The Peace Memorial Museum in Japan. It’s similar to a Holocaust museum but it’s dedicated to eliminating nuclear weapons. It’s also dedicated to the memory of those that were subject to nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On the museum’s webpage was a link to request an interview with a survivor. I emailed the museum and got a reply back almost the very next day.

     The museum and I established a day and a time to video conference with a Hiroshima survivor. We set up the school’s auditorium in order to Skype with Mr. Nakanishi. We had about 100 students, faculty, and former students in attendance. He was 15 years old the day the bomb was dropped. His presentation described the events of that day. He showed paintings of the events while he gave an explanation. Following his presentation the students ask him questions. One student asked, “What did you do for food after the bomb?” He explained that because of the war they were already starving. There was no food available because the war was going so poorly for Japan. After the bomb things got worse. He said he was eating worms, frogs, whatever he could find. It was horrible.

     Another student asked a question I will never forget, “If you knew the nuclear bomb was going to drop and you had a chance to say goodbye to someone who would it have been?” People in the crowd began crying after she asked that question. Mr. Nakanishi was caught by surprise by the question and got choked up a little. He mentioned a little cousin of his that he liked so much, a little girl. They never found any traces of her after the bomb.

      Mr. Nakanishi was 15 years old when the bomb dropped. At 15 he was very militaristic and was really into the whole war idea. He made it clear to my students that he hates war. He thinks war is crazy and nuclear weapons are even crazier. One of the students asked him how he felt about nuclear energy. He explained that he was against anything with radioactivity. His abhors the idea of nuclear fission because of what it can do.

What were the students’ reactions regarding his presentation?

Glenn: They were impressed with his passion for wanting to end war and nuclear energy. Some were in shock in response to some of the stories he shared. Most everything that is depicted of that day is done through art. One image really impacted the kids. Mr. Nakanishi talked about dead people floating down the river with their eyeballs protruding from their heads due to the sudden change in pressure. It actually pushed their eyeballs from the sockets of their heads. The burns that people sustained also shocked the students. Even more hideous was the radioactive sickness.

     You just can’t understand what truly happened there until you talk with someone like him. He closed with a statement saying that the purpose of this whole interview is for this to never happen again.

Friday, September 9, 2011

One-on-One With Kim Bearden

Kim is co-founder and middle grades language arts teacher at The Ron Clark Academy. She brings an inspiring combination of innovation, creativity, and enthusiasm to the classroom for her students and visiting teachers.

  • 2000 Disney Middle School Teacher of the Year
  • Winner of the Milken National Educator Award
  • Leadership Atlanta Class of 2008
  • Finalist for Georgia Teacher of the Year
As a middle school teacher what inspires you each day to continue teaching?

Kim: It is very important for a teacher to realize that the energy you give off is the energy you get back from your students. I am very intentional from the second that I enter my classroom of giving my students 110%. If I don’t necessarily feel like giving 110% that morning I still bring it. Maybe I’m tired or sick or having a bad day, but the second I enter the door they don’t know the difference. I bring that energy and immediately I get it back from my students. THAT’S what feeds me every day. It not only feeds the energy of the class, it feeds my soul as well.

      When you have a classroom full of students who enter giving me hugs and who can’t wait to be there, that’s what keeps me going back day after day. Some teachers have told me, “I don’t get those kinds of students. I don’t get students who are excited about learning.”

     So what I ask them is, “What are you giving the students initially? Are you waiting for them to give you that energy, excitement, and enthusiasm or are you starting with that yourself?”

     Sometimes teachers walk into to the classroom with their shoulders slumped and speaking in a monotone voice, and wonder why students look lethargic and bored. It reminds me of the scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off where the teacher is at the blackboard and everyone is falling asleep. That’s what he was projecting and that’s the response he got.

     I have been fortunate enough to watch many master teachers teach. When you see enthusiastic students there is an enthusiastic teacher in the classroom first. The teacher has to be the one that brings the spirit, energy, and enthusiasm to the classroom. That’s what I love most about teaching: the energy, the joy, and that sparkle in the kids’ eyes when they are truly passionate about what’s happening. I know that some of my students are struggling with other things in their lives. To look at a child who I know is hurting on the inside for other reasons and see their eyes sparkling because of what is happening in the classroom, that’s the greatest reward in the world.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

One-on-One with Rafe Esquith; How did you develop into the teacher you are today?

Rafe is a 5th grade teacher at Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles, California

·         Awarded the President’s National Medal of Arts

·         The American Teacher Award

·         Oprah Winfrey’s Use Your Life Award

·         Honorary Member of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II

·         Parents Magazine’s As You Grow Award

·         The Compassion in Action Award from the Dalai Lama

·         1992 Disney National  Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award

·         New York Times Best-Selling author for “Teach Like Your Hair is on Fire.”

How did you develop into the teacher you are today?
RAFE: I don’t like to fail and I sure failed a lot. One of the points I try to make with young teachers that come in is I tell them no one is good their first few years. They may think they are. You might be a great second year teacher, but you’re not a great teacher yet, it’s impossible. Unfortunately, because of Hollywood movies and because of things you read in the press, you can actually start to believe that at 24 you are a great teacher. You’re not. You don’t have the wisdom, you don’t have the experience, and you haven’t failed enough to know what it is to be a great teacher.

      I think what really shaped me in my early years was in believing I had been successful because I did get kids up to a much higher level on standardized tests. Their reading and math was better so I thought I had done a good job. But in hearing 2 or 3 years later about these same kids involved with gangs, or drugs, or dropping out of school and doing all kinds of awful things, I realized I hadn’t been a very good teacher because the real measure is what I’m giving them that will last them the rest of their lives. I had a lot of sleepless nights when I absolutely felt I had done well when in fact I really hadn’t. That’s when I had to sit down and think, “How can I do it better?”

     If we are trying to share qualities we have with other teachers. Every teacher has their strengths and weaknesses. My greatest strength is that I just don’t give up. I teach the kids not to give up when things are hard which means I can’t give up. When I failed, I still fail, but especially in those early years I learned to take a look inward, not to blame the kids, not to blame the parents, or to blame the system. Those things might be flawed but I can’t control that stuff. I can control my teaching. That’s when I started to shape my classroom differently. I’ve had more success since I started making those changes.
The above dialogue is an excerpt from the book, One-on-One With America's Most Inspiring Teachers. Now available on