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An intelligence officer walks into a classroom ...

How does a former US Air Force intelligence officer become a finalist for national Teacher of the Year? Maureen Stover of North Carolina attributes it to recognizing her strength in the military -- distilling complicated information from several sources into both "30,000-foot views" for high-level personnel and the nitty-gritty for fighter pilots minutes away from enemy territory -- then applying it to the high-school classroom via differentiated instruction.

Keeping fighter pilots in check prepared her for ninth- and 10th-grade classroom management; being an effective team player aided her educational collaborations; and helping troops succeed as airmen translated into nurturing high-school students' growth, she says.


Stover

Data and differentiation

But the differentiation component is huge, and Stover furthers her mission by creating new spreadsheets and collecting data on every student each day. "By walking around as I teach, I'm able to see what my students are doing and also see if they're stuck on something," she says, recalling the maxim of being "a guide on the side instead of a sage on a stage."

Analyzing that data after school lets her tweak her next lesson plan, individualizing each concept to address every student's strengths and weaknesses. "It does take a lot of work, but the flip side is, my students are successful," she says, noting that it also reduces behavioral disruptions from students who otherwise would be bored or hopelessly confused.

Stover is constantly seeking ways to improve her teaching. "Is there a better way I could have taught that? A better activity to help that student who was struggling?" she asks herself, noting that she wants to be as responsive as possible to her students.

She initially was hesitant to bring art into her science class but learned that it truly engaged the students, didn't disrupt her school's fast pacing and improved student success. "We really started to see a huge change in their ability to not only recall but actually apply the information they were learning," she says, remembering how one student later shared her own rap music video on hard-to-remember macromolecules with her college biology classmates.

"I give them grace"

Stover's attention to her students extends to what’s going on outside of school: working a part-time job, helping with laundry, minding younger siblings or starting dinner if a parent is still at work. "There are a lot of teachers that are very hard and fast with due dates. ... I entered teaching thinking, 'Is my main goal to give these kids grades or help these children learn?' I give them grace if they need extra time to get something done and also try to teach responsibility," she says, by insisting they stop by before class or send her an email to explain why they need an extension rather than waiting until she's checking homework to ask.

Stover, who started teaching in her 30s, wants to be the person who’s missing from some students' lives -- the one who every day calls them by their name, tells them they're doing a good job and gives them a high-five or a hug. "I really form relationships with my students beyond the 90 minutes I have them in my class," she says, either as the swimming or cross country coach or by going to their debate or theater events.

Being there -- developing that relationship -- "goes a long way in helping me when something is going on with my students," Stover says. She makes sure they know she has high expectations for them academically and behaviorally but that she's a true ally in their academic and personal growth.

What's next?

As a North Carolina Teacher of the Year, Stover is spending this school year outside of the classroom advocating for and aiding teachers across the state.

She is a huge proponent of the federal Troops to Teachers program, which helps people transitioning out of the military become teachers and is a promising vehicle for enticing into the classroom the large numbers of men and people of color who are in the military. Troops to Teachers is due to be defunded later this year, but Stover -- who is a product of the program -- has been lobbying legislators to keep it. "It's so important [to have teachers who] look like the students they're teaching," she says, to provide role models for all students and to bring the richness of more ethnicities, religions, viewpoints and experiences to schools.

If Stover's advocacy role isn't extended for another year, she'll head back in the fall to her classroom at Cumberland International Early College High School in Fayetteville. 

Diane Benson Harrington is an education/leadership writer at SmartBrief. She can be reached at Diane.Harrington@futurenet.com.