Laura Roberts, principal, Woodlawn Hills Elementary in SAISD poses for a photo after being surprised with a $1,000 H-E-B Excellence in Education finalist check. Photo courtesy of H-E-B.
Laura Roberts, principal, Woodlawn Hills Elementary in SAISD poses for a photo after being surprised with a $1,000 H-E-B Excellence in Education finalist check. Photo courtesy of H-E-B.

Every year, H-E-B scours the state looking for educators who exemplify the best in their field. The H-E-B Excellence in Education Awards is the largest monetary award for Texas educators, and one of the largest in the nation.

The awards go to teachers, principals, school districts, and early childhood facilities. In San Antonio, six teachers and two principals representing elementary, middle, and high school, as well as early childhood education are finalists in the statewide competition. The teachers each earned $1,000 for their schools, and the principals earned $2,500 for their schools. All finalists received individual $1,000 checks, too, hand delivered by an H-E-B team right to the classroom in February.

Justin Oxley, Bradley Middle School Principal in North East Independent School District, was surprised with a $1,000 check from H-E-B as an Excellence in Education finalist. Photo courtesy of H-E-B.
Justin Oxley, Bradley Middle School Principal in North East Independent School District, was surprised with a $1,000 check from H-E-B as an Excellence in Education finalist. Photo courtesy of H-E-B.

Teacher and principal finalists are invited to Houston May 2-3 to compete on a statewide level for $430,000 in cash and prizes at the annual awards gala. There, eight winners — two principals and six teachers — will be announced along with two school districts, one large and one small, a public school board (if selected) and an early childhood facility, at the May 3 awards dinner.

Looking at the list of finalists, it’s clear that we have excellent teachers and principals in San Antonio. The educators on the list, and many others, are inspiring young people to live up to their potential and giving students the tools they need to realize their goals. However, one has to wonder: How does one measure excellence in an affluent district when it’s being compared to inner city districts? Do differences in resources, parent involvement, and out-of-school enrichment opportunities change what it means for a teacher to be “excellent?”

On the list of finalists, Alamo Heights ISD and SAISD were both represented. Cheryl Duckers and Calli Greiss are teacher finalists out of the more affluent Alamo Heights ISD, and Laura Roberts is a principal finalist from largely inner-city SAISD.

Visiting Duckers’ classroom was like visiting the set of an educational kids show. But not because of fancy equipment and dazzling teaching tools. Enthusiastic third-graders are laying painter’s tape on the floor to create shapes for “Perimeter-palooza.” They chatter and plot as members of teams, calling for Duckers to admire their work and assist when necessary. Duckers’ own mother buzzes around as her classroom aide, and the children feel perfectly comfortable chatting with the press.

Cheryl Duckers with Cambridge ES third-graders enjoying "Perimeter-palooza."
Cheryl Duckers with Cambridge ES third-graders enjoying “Perimeter-palooza.” Courtesy photo.

Their favorite subject? The stories Duckers tells, using illustrations from her own life to make sense of academic subjects. The kids talk about her son, mother, and childhood as though it were their own family lore. Like proud relatives they beam over their teacher’s recognition.

“She deserves it,” said Paige, one of Duckers’ students, “When she was little she was already a teacher.”

Paige tells a story of a precocious young Duckers taking over instruction of her classmates.

This familial bond is no accident. Duckers works hard to cultivate it.

“I’m very big on that sense of team,” Duckers said.

The kids also feel a deep loyalty to their teacher, probably because they sense that loyalty from her. Parents have her cell phone number, kids look to her for emotional as well as educational nurture. One evening, Duckers found herself in the emergency room with a student who had broken his arm and asked for his teacher to come sit by his side while the doctors treated him. This kind of care sticks with them long after they leave her class as well, according to students who have come back to visit after leaving Cambridge Elementary.

“Once a Duckers’ kid, always a Duckers’ kid,” she said.

While she recognizes the resource advantages of being in a school district like Alamo Heights ISD, she doesn’t look to those resources for success.

“Wherever you are, it’s building that relationship with kids that makes the difference,” Duckers said.

Across town at Woodlawn Hills Elementary, principal finalist Laura Roberts concurs.

“It’s about the community that is built within the school,” Roberts said.

Roberts works hard to make vital connections: teacher-administration, teacher-student, parent-administration, community-school, and the list goes on. As these relationships are strengthened, her team’s ability to address the needs of students expands. In what has been a difficult economic year for Woodlawn Hills ES families, Roberts has engaged St. Mary’s University and hosted campus wide food drives to support students and their families.

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Laura Roberts loves her students at Woodlawn Hills Elementary School. Photo courtesy of H-E-B.

In each of these relationships, Roberts leads by example. She wipes down cafeteria tables. She works long hours. She attends workshops. All of this allows her to come alongside her team and encourage them to grow in their profession.

“We’re only as good as we help each other to be,” Roberts said.

Troy Mann, a teacher in Comal ISD, was one of this year’s judges. He recognizes that resources do open up more opportunities with curriculum and tools for teaching, but he doesn’t place too much emphasis on the impact that bells and whistles can have on a teacher’s efficacy.

“Excellent teaching shines through whether you have a Mac in every kid’s hands or you’re still using a chalkboard,” said Mann.

He echoed the philosophy of Duckers and Roberts.

“In the end, it is about relationships, passion and enthusiasm that show through, creativity in designing lessons, resourcefulness, and genuine concern. Good relationships help facilitate the achievement of goals, whether that is learning material or creating a safe learning environment,” Mann said.

Admittedly, this makes the judges job more difficult. However, it also lends depth to the H-E-B Awards. The awards are not based on quantitative data like test scores. They are based on the quality of the teaching, something that, while it may result in higher test scores, is more importantly linked to love of learning and cultivation of the “whole child,” a phrase used repeatedly by Duckers and Roberts.

“As a judge, unfortunately, I don’t get to spend time in the teacher’s classroom. Instead, I have to “feel” those relationships come through in the teacher’s writing,”  said Mann. “Whatever it is in their writing, it is something that just seems to jump off the paper and stays with me long after I’ve moved on to the next candidate. And, honestly, in almost every case, when I have met with the other judges, we all will agree we got the same impression from that candidate.  It’s basically intangible, but you know it when you see it.”

*Featured/top image: Laura Roberts, principal, Woodlawn Hills Elementary in SAISD poses for a photo after being surprised with a $1,000 H-E-B Excellence in Education finalist check. Photo courtesy of H-E-B.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.