National Teacher of the Year

2010 National Teacher of the Year

NameSarah Brown Wessling

School Information

School Address
Johnston High SchoolJohnston, IA
Teaching AreaEnglish
Teaching Level10-12

Iowa High School English Teacher Named 2010 National Teacher of the Year at White House Ceremony

Washington, DC, April 29, 2010 -- Sarah Brown Wessling begins the school year for her senior English students with a copy of Plato’s Parable of Light and a candle. She tells them that, by the end of the class period, they need to tell her the course expectations. And in this classroom in Johnston, Iowa, they can. Wessling lives her belief that, as she says, “Learning must be learner-centered.”

Because of her passion for her subject, her innovative focus on her learners and the equal passion she devotes to mentoring others new to the profession, Wessling was named 2010 National Teacher of the Year by President Barack Obama at a White House ceremony on April 29, 2010. Also recognized at the event were the 2010 state teachers of the year.

The National Teacher of the Year Program is presented and sponsored by the ING Foundation. And the Program this year welcomes Minneapolis-based Target, as a new lead sponsor.

The National Teacher of the Year Program is a project of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) with program partners, the University of Phoenix Foundation and People To People Ambassador Programs. CCSSO is a nationwide, nonprofit organization of public officials who head departments of elementary and secondary education in the states, the District of Columbia, the Department of Defense Education Activity, and five U.S. extra-state jurisdictions.

“As a nation we are demanding higher standards and more accountability for educator and student performance. To succeed in meeting these demands, we need to create systems that provide ongoing and continuous support to our workforce as they work towards individualizing the learning experience for our next generation of students,” said CCSSO Executive Director Gene Wilhoit. “Sarah Wessling exemplifies what we want in the profession and is also a mentor to educators in her field. She and her cohort of state teachers of the year are the outstanding individuals we need to listen to and learn from in order to transform our education system.”

The National Teacher of the Year Program focuses public attention on teaching excellence and is the oldest and most prestigious awards program for teachers in the country. According to Rhonda Mims, president of the ING Foundation, ING is pleased to collaborate with CCSSO for the sixth consecutive year to celebrate the national and state teachers of the year. "Congratulations to Mrs. Wessling and all the state teachers of the year for their dedication to improving student achievement. ING is committed to honoring excellence in education, and it’s important that we support all educators who are entering the classrooms each day to empower our children to achieve a better future for themselves,” Mims said.

Target is proud to partner with CCSSO to celebrate the national and state teachers of the year. "We congratulate Mrs. Wessling and all the state teachers of the year for their dedication to ensuring that every child receives a quality education,” said Laysha Ward, president, community relations, Target. “Target recognizes that one of the most important factors in a student’s academic success is an effective teacher and we’re proud to recognize all these educators who inspire children along the path to graduation.”

Wessling is a tenth through twelfth grade English teacher at Johnston High School in Johnston, Iowa. As the 60th National Teacher of the Year, she will devote herself fulltime for a year as a national and international spokesperson for education beginning June 1, 2010. To Wessling, learner-centered education means, as she says, “creating a web of rigorous content, real-world experience, and inquiry-based experiences around the learner.”

With one former student, Meredith (now a teacher herself), it meant fostering self-confidence in Meredith’s considerable intelligence by differentiating her instruction, but also holding off on the pressure for academic success in favor of letting Meredith discover her own ambition. As a senior, Meredith was honored for her scholastic achievement and Wessling was there proudly cheering her on.

For another, Tyler, who had already failed a year of English, it meant for Wessling spending her lunch hours reading the journals she had started with each student in Tyler’s class. Through his journal, she discovered Tyler liked to draw and urged him to bring in his artwork, because she knew just engaging him was going to be the greatest victory. She succeeded; he passed. He also found an ally in her for the next two years as he worked to graduate. “Being a learner-centered teacher means respecting who students are right now,” Wessling says.

She is also passionate about learning in the twenty-first century, believing that teachers must “recognize the importance of teaching that marries content to skill,” that problem solving and critical thinking are useless without the facts, but the reverse is also true. In her classroom, she creates this balance by stepping far outside the five paragraph essay and into the world of surveys, songs, film storyboards, public service announcements, Facebook pages and a yearly grant project in which the entire town gets involved. Her students create non-profit organizations for at-risk populations in the community and write grant proposals for which members of the community approve (imaginary) funding. She says, “Students construct knowledge when it is relevant to them, when they have a real authentic purpose, when they have an audience that gives them context.” For her students and her fellow teachers, she never loses sight of her goal to create life-long learners and genuine thinkers accustomed to intellectual risk.

Becca Lindhal, a professional learning and leadership consultant with the Heartland Area Education Agency 11 in Johnston, finds herself constantly impressed by Wessling’s many strengths as a teacher. “Each time I work with Sarah, I come away with a sense of amazement at her learnedness and scholarship, her deep conceptual and procedural knowledge of integrated language arts, and her profound devotion to and expertise in facilitating learning at the highest levels for each and every one of her students.” Lindhal continues by saying, “A dominant theme that comes through, from colleague after colleague, is that Sarah, like her inquiry-based assignments, is the complete package of what every teacher should aspire to.”

Her methods work. As one former student, John Lund, says of his own journey in her class, “She took an underachieving student that struggled through remedial reading in second grade and transformed him into someone with the confidence to go to college and now graduate school.” Wessling works as hard as her students, instilling hope in those who had given up on education by being available far outside a fifty minute lecture and giving far more than a few notes at the end of a paper, by engaging them with alternative assignments that can make the words of a philosopher, dead for two millennia, relevant to their lives now and by celebrating any small moment of progress, from one student showing up five days in a row like never before to a grade-obsessed student risking a B to pursue an idea.

Wessling says she was “meant to be a teacher.” She discovered this while in college where, after pursuing several different majors, she realized she could indulge her passion for many different subjects and make them meaningful by igniting a similar curiosity in others. She focused on English partly because of, as she explains it, “the lessons literature offers about the human experience.” (view Wessling's complete candidate application)

Wessling was raised in Winterset, Iowa and graduated from Winterset High School in 1993. She holds both bachelor’s and a master’s degrees from Iowa State University, in English Education and English Literature respectively. Wessling has taught at Johnston High School for ten years and prior to that for one year at Cedar Falls High School in Cedar Falls, Iowa. In 2005 she earned certification in English Language Arts/Adolescence and Young Adulthood from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

She is married to Tim Wessling and they have three children, ages six, three, and four months.