Md. teacher of the year focuses on connections with students

Joshua Parker fell in love in 10th grade, discovering the power of words when his English teacher put a volume of Langston Hughes in his hands.

He describes it as a moment so profound that it was like hearing chords of music for the first time.

Bright but with a middling interest in school, Parker had suddenly found his passion. He swallowed up books of poetry and scribbled dozens of lines to a girl.

"It showed the human condition lyrically," Parker said leaning forward, his hands gripping the sides of a table. "This is cool."

A dozen years later, Parker is not a poet but a teacher trying to make connections for his students between literature and the world they live in, just as Ms. Dew did the year he fell in love with literature and a girl.

The recently minted Maryland Teacher of the Year teaches language arts at Windsor Mill Middle School in Baltimore County, a school whose population is predominantly African-American. But, he says, literature is just the medium. "Honestly, I am just trying to make these kids better people," he said.

When he introduces his African-American students to "A Tale of Two Cities," the 28-year-old tries to emphasize common ideas that have shaped the world over time, he said.

As he paced up and down the aisles of his eighth-graders last week, asking them to analyze a book from a sociologist's perspective, he talked about jazz, hip-hop and Lady Gaga.

"I feel the most comfortable in his classroom," said eighth-grader Ayanna Maxwell. "He talks to us in a way that we can understand."

Those talents weren't born in him but were hard-learned. After majoring in sports communication and English at Towson University, Parker went to work at Fox 45 as a sports producer but was bored. He decided to make a little extra money as a substitute teacher. He liked it and tried to get into a teacher residency program in Baltimore City or Baltimore County schools. The city interviewed him, but said he didn't have the right academic credentials.

The county said they didn't have a place for him, so he took another job. Then, just two weeks before school opened, the principal of Dundalk Middle School called and asked him to come in for an interview on a Saturday.

Parker "had all sorts of energy and ideas but had absolutely no training in instruction or classroom management," said Tom Shouldice, who is now principal of Dundalk High School. "I recognized that this would be a work in progress."

Parker mentioned his mother was a teacher and that she was willing to help him, a point that encouraged Shouldice to take a chance.

The first year, Parker said, he was a terrible teacher. He could relate to the kids, but he had no sense of how to manage a classroom, and he would let his emotions and temper get the better of him. He remembers chewing out a girl one day because she talked endlessly. At the end of it, she laughed at him, and he realized he had to change his strategy.

Shouldice and two teachers were constantly overseeing his work, modeling good teaching, showing him how to write lesson plans. "There was a lot of energy that we put into helping Josh be successful," Shouldice said. "There was a question whether we were making enough progress."

At the end of the year when other teachers were saying he should be let go, Shouldice was impressed with the relationships he built with students and decided to keep him, but put him on a plan that would give him continued assistance.

Parker remembers that Shouldice just kept telling him he would be fine, and by the end of his second year, he was. He moved on to become a high school language arts teacher.

Ambitious, and now married with a child, Parker decided he wanted to become a department chair in a high school. Then a department chair opening became available at Windsor Mill Middle, a beautiful new school whose students hadn't been meeting the federal benchmarks and that was undergoing academic changes.

Principal Deborah Phelps saw in him the kind of leader she needed, a teacher who was well-versed in education research but also "had the heart of children" in the front of his mind. "Josh always has time to look eye to eye with one of our young men," she said.

Phelps has given Parker a lot of flexibility this year to improve the teaching of language arts and world languages, essentially assigning him and the math chair only one class a day so that he can co-teach lessons with those who may need more support to improve student achievement.

"He's serving as a model to help others grow," said Phelps, whose fondness for Parker is clear. He came into the school most days during the summer, sitting in her office to work out issues he was puzzled over.

"Josh could be my kid," she said, adding that he is just about the same age as her son, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps.

After being observed by the principal, a young, inexperienced teacher talked to Parker, saying she was excited because her lesson that day had gone well, and Phelps had been complimentary. The teacher didn't see, however, how she would be able to put together such perfect lessons every night. She had been at school until 10 p.m. the night before. "Remember when you first learned to parallel park? How long did it take you? And how long does it take you now?" Parker said, assuring her that she would get faster with practice.

Parker's mission is to find ways to get students who are now the lowest performers in the county to excel at a much higher level. The trick, he believes, is in building relationships. African-American students, he said, care as much about how you relate to them as the content that you are teaching. They want both, but the relationship has to come first.

While he will remain in the classroom for the next several years, Parker said he wants to make more money eventually, which means he will probably go into administration.

Phelps and Shouldice describe Parker as a voracious reader who continues to be excited by literature even after teaching it all day.

Parker's love of poetry may have brought out a passion that would lead him to his career, but his ego still seems bruised. The 40 poems he wrote to that girl in high school weren't enough to earn him the one thing he longed for: just one date with her.

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