Spotlight: Thomas Dennison (MD '16)March 14, 2017
Thomas Dennison (MD '16) focuses on big ideas and aspirations to help his fifth-grade students figure out who they really are: "I want them to remember that every day offers them a chance to do great things by serving and taking care of others." Thomas won Maryland’s 2016-17 Milken Educator Award at Havre de Grace Elementary School on December 1, 2016.
Milken Educator Awards: How did you end up in education?
Thomas Dennison: I was always around schools. Wherever we moved my mom got a job working in the local elementary school. I seemed to find myself playing Santa, wearing a puppet or playing with a group of young kids all the time. It ended up being assumed that I would be a teacher.
The big problem for me all along was that I never liked school. I started at the American high school in Germany with a 1.6 GPA. My sophomore year we moved to Kentucky. My junior and senior years I worked with an English and journalism teacher by the name of Mrs. Speck. Mrs. Speck was really hard on me. I had dramatically improved my grades my sophomore year and was making solid B's, but she pushed me even harder. In her class I learned that the details matter. I learned to push through to the deadline. I learned that when others bail it doesn't mean I have to as well. I learned that I am capable of changing, growing and not being who the world told me to be. And I met my future wife.
In high school I was directing our school TV channel, as well as writing for the newspaper and coordinating layout and design. When I graduated from high school I won several awards in the communication field; this gave me the bright idea that I should major in communications at Ohio State. I could tell it wasn't right though.
So where did all of this lead? Back to elementary school where my mom started me. I had the work habits and confidence I learned from my journalism teacher. And I had the desire to make school exciting and show kids the opportunity they have to make themselves and the world better every day.
MEA: Why elementary school?
Thomas: In elementary school I get to speak to the character and heart of kids. As a fifth-grade teacher I get to deliver real content while helping students fight to figure out who they are. I get to teach kids how to challenge what they're being told by learning and exploring. Students don't have as many walls built up, don't have as many preconceived notions. My students and I are a team, working to develop leaders of the future. Working to fight against the darkness the world pushes.
But it's frustrating when I see students so young already lose hope, already controlled by the path of their environment and situation. It is frustrating to see students try to be older than they are. It is frustrating to see the hurt such young kids go through.
MEA: What was your first job?
Thomas: My first real job was delivering newspapers. I still remember the route, the houses and the way I could never get the bag to tie to the front of my Huffy without dragging on the front wheel.
I was not very good at that job. I always looked for ways to get out of it and I hated trying to collect money from my customers. I would have to knock on doors and ask for payment in cash. Some houses would fall months behind and I never knew how to talk to an adult who was obviously struggling and tell them the paper boy needs $46. I learned not to judge people's situations, and that when there is a job to do you've got to get up and just get it done. People wanted their newspaper really early on Sunday morning!
MEA: Who was your own most memorable elementary school teacher?
Thomas: I don't remember many of my elementary school teachers. My dad was in the army and during elementary school we lived in Germany, Colorado and Ohio. I do remember my fifth-grade class, but only because I could never find my place with those kids. The only memory I have of my teacher was her marking a math fact wrong on a speed challenge. It was the only problem I had missed and there was some reward for being perfect. The problem was 3 x 3 and I had written a very sloppy 9, which she said was a 4. I never caused trouble so I figured she would listen to me. When I tried to explain that 4 doesn’t even make sense as a possible answer she snapped, "Tommy, that's enough. Sit down."
My eighth-grade teacher, Ms. Dodge, was amazing. This was during our second trip to Germany. The school I attended was K-8 and had less than 100 students total. There were eight of us in that class. I remember the freedom to work, talk and create in her room was amazing. We went to Russia that year on a two-week field trip. I loved the comfort of being in her room. I was safe to try to be me.
MEA: Which subjects did you like (or not)?
Thomas: My favorite was always history. I loved learning why things happened and the stories behind it all. I almost ended up with a history degree because I took so many history classes just for fun. All the way through elementary school I wanted to be Indiana Jones—how awesome is that life? We looked for just the perfect hat for years, but sadly I was never able to live the dream of wearing an awesome hat or saving the historical world from evil.
My hardest subjects were always reading and writing. I avoided them as much as possible. My current reading coach, Kristi Horn, has really changed my outlook on reading and writing. She has put books and stories in my hand that reach my heart in a new way. Finding someone who loves the craft and shares her love has forced me to do the same thing. Now I talk about reading and writing as transformative media, which honestly is the best part of my day.
MEA: Tell us about your first class.
Thomas: I always say, "Those poor kids!" when people ask me about my first class. The problem was, I thought I knew everything, and I really, really, really did not. I remember during that time how much help I got from my mother. She helped me decorate my third-grade classroom with three-dimensional Where the Wild Things Are characters. I loved the idea in the last page of that story: Even if you act like an out-of-control animal, there is still grace from those who love you. I wanted that to be me. Unfortunately, I was run over by paperwork, grades, meetings, IEPs and who knows what else. It was a blur and aside from faces and names I don't remember much of what happened or even what I taught.
MEA: What impact do you think your Milken Educator Award presentation had on students at your school?
Thomas: The students in my classroom carry themselves differently now. They see themselves as "award-winning" and feel like they have a standard to live up to. It is actually really cool to see them mature and step up as leaders because they feel like they are part of something special, a unique class that is preparing them to change the world.
The students in the school still constantly give me a wink, a thumbs-up or whisper "Congratulations." They're so encouraging!
MEA: What do you hope your students remember about you and their time in your class?
Thomas: That moments, good or bad, don't define you. Every day you have a chance to do great things by serving and taking care of others. I hope they remember that darkness is only defeated by brave people being light when others are scared to. I hope they remember that there is a world outside of their house, their city, their state. I hope they remember to challenge things and form their own opinions based upon everything they continue to learn.
MEA: How do you involve parents and families in your class?
Thomas: I make my life very open to them. I make it clear that I have nothing to hide from them, that I am willing to share all parts of my life. They should know who I am because I am speaking into the lives of their children, even more than they are at this point. I share my number, will accept them on Facebook, visit their homes, invite them to work with me after school, etc. I learned from Ron Clark [of the Ron Clark Academy] to always keep the first interactions positive. Find a way to praise and celebrate their child so they know we're on the same team. As a parent myself I always love hearing about my child, so I try to do the same, even if it is something I think the parents already know. Parents always love to hear how amazing their child is.
MEA: What's your favorite time of the school day?
Thomas: Without question it's our small reading groups. There is nothing more exciting than debating, analyzing and challenging each other through a great book. Whether it's Harry Potter, The Mighty Miss Malone or The Bad Beginnings, we can always find life and growth in a story.
MEA: What's the biggest challenge you face in your classroom?
Thomas: The biggest challenge I face is running out of time. There isn't enough time to get all subjects in at the level that is needed. There isn't enough time to sit and plan with my team. There isn't enough time to take a step back and look at how to make things bigger and more dynamic. There isn't enough time to find an issue, research it, develop it in my room, see others teach and so on. There are times when all of these things happen but they come at the cost of something else. I almost wish I had one of those time-turning devices Hermione used to attend extra classes [in the Harry Potter books], but then again I'd need it for all of my students and fellow teachers so they could come along with me.
MEA: If someone gave you a million dollars for your school, what would you do with it?
Thomas: I would want to make our school a dynamic and unique place to visit, one that makes students visually excited the moment they walk in the door. Themed rooms, gardens, live animals, slides, iPads and such come to mind.
But I think I would start by taking care of the teachers. Motivated and loving teachers do amazing things with amazingly little. I would have a daycare for teachers' kids—I've seen way too many good teachers leave the profession to stay home with their kids. I would build a gym and have a healthy lunch and snack provided for teachers each day. I would provide professional and ongoing training to help develop teachers' character and self-awareness and understanding. People who are taken care of and put in a creative environment will thrive, and I would want to create that for both teachers and students.
MEA: If you hadn't chosen a career in education, what would you be doing right now?
Thomas: I would be miserable.
MEA: What can our nation do better to encourage young, capable people to consider teaching as a career? How can we motivate new teachers to stay in the profession?
Thomas: There isn't a more difficult question than this. Our society doesn't truly value the craft of teaching. It's not something everyone can do: Sure, teaching can be learned, but there is an art and a style to it.
I often struggle with great teachers leaving the classroom for administrative positions. In their defense, there are very few growth opportunities in education. You're either a teacher or admin. If teachers want to make enough money to fully support their families they need to leave the classroom, which seems to happen around year eight in my area. My first year one of my colleagues, Mary Weaver, said, "One of the biggest issues with education is that all the great teachers try to become administrators." Mary is still in the classroom and is beloved by generations of students.
I also think we throw new teachers into the fire too quickly. This fits with my frustration that there is no real chain of command in teaching. A first-year teacher is young and raw and naive and a mess. It's not fair to them or their students. I would like to see master-and-apprentice-style classrooms with two qualified teachers who work together in the same room for a few years. It would give them authority, responsibility, make them more connected to each other. This would let teachers truly learn the craft, keeping some of them in the classroom before burning out, and on the other end it would keep career teachers in the classroom longer because they have roles and more steps to pass through before running to be a principal somewhere.
I believe that when we as education professionals up our game, society will up its respect.
MEA: Finish this sentence: "I know I'm succeeding as an educator when..."
Thomas: ...when a student hugs me in tears.
I had to be out of school to say goodbye to my dog Ginger. While I was out, one of my students was extremely rude to the substitute and cafeteria workers. When I saw him the next morning I told him that I needed him to help me deal with my loss, and that I needed to be able to count on him to show people who he really is. He buried his head in my chest and cried, whispering, "I'm sorry." This is the first year in elementary school he has had his behavior under control. He is an amazing young man!
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