Q&A with 2014 Muscogee County Teacher of the Year

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comMay 2, 2014 

Her school's marquee spread the news. Her second-graders paraded their teacher down every hall. Flowers and balloons arrived in her classroom.

Friday morning sure wasn't routine for Midland Academy second-grade teacher Brandy Sipling. But standardized testing doesn't wait for even the Muscogee County School District 2014 Teacher of the Year. So while her students were occupied, Sipling sat down with the Ledger-Enquirer for an interview.

She got only four hours of sleep after the Muscogee Educational Excellence Foundation announced her as the winner at Thursday night's gala. And it was the first time she couldn't put to bed her 20-month-old son, Carson. But the 14-year educator - who taught the Friday before Carson was born on a Saturday -- still was energized, passionately promoting her profession and the positive impact it makes on children.

One of her students, 8-year-old Caroline Ellmer, summed up Sipling's impact this way: "She compliments everybody on how well they do, no matter what."

Asked how that makes her feel, Caroline said, "It makes me feel appreciated for who I am."

Such an answer didn't surprise Midland principal Janice Miley. She called the teacher's dash of compassion "Sipling Sauce."

"Sometimes I strategically place children in her classroom who need that little extra," Miley said. "… She is excellent at making them feel like Caroline Ellmer put it. I'm getting chills, I'm sorry, but they know, they know."

Here are excerpts from Sipling's Q&A with the L-E, edited for brevity and clarity:

So what's the past 12 hours been like after you were announced as the winner?

"Oh, my goodness, it's just been so exciting. It's unbelievable to share with my friends and colleagues and family and my children here at school. They counted the hours until yesterday."

What was your students' reaction when you first saw them this morning?

"They were so excited. They were yelling and screaming and jumping around."

As the district's Teacher of the Year, what do you want to advocate?

"I really believe that you need to build relationships as a teacher, not only in the classroom … but also with parents, getting them on your side so we can make the best decisions for their children. … Parents sometimes are reluctant to come into the school if they've had previously bad experiences in the school setting. So if we can meet them at the door, they are more willing to come and help us later."

How else can teachers build relationships with parents?

"I often will email and text parents at different hours. Because of our working schedules and our economy, it's not as easy for some parents to come during the school hours. So we get them all different ways."

What makes you most hopeful about the Muscogee County School District?

"I am so thrilled with the changes the new superintendent has brought in. With those changes, we're now at the elementary level getting resources we need to support our new Common Core standards that we haven't had access to before."

Like what?

"We've got the new reading adoption (the district-wide Reading Wonders program). We've already received training and we're implementing it, and we have a math adoption coming in the fall."

What concerns you most about the Muscogee County School District?

"Just making sure that communication between all of our levels, not only at the school level but at the district level, is on the same plan. I think with (Superintendent David) Lewis' plan to have the regions, that's going to help with the communication aspect. Sometimes, we'll hear one thing at one school then something totally different at another school. So we all need to be on the same plan because our children are so mobile in this district."

What would be your ideal accountability system to measure teacher and school performance?

"We need to be accountable because we need to make sure our children are reaching the mastery level of standards, not just promoting mediocrity. We do want our children in this district to meet and exceed the standards that we expect at the grade levels that they're in. But we need to make sure that the teacher and the student, if they're not meeting those standards, we have some kind of system in place that we can show all the different interventions we are using and ways we are trying to help the child succeed. So, as a teacher, I would hope that we wouldn't have a certain cut score but being able to show a certain percentage of growth versus having to hit a certain score."

Why did you choose to be a teacher?

"It's been a passion since I was really little. My mom always knew I would become a teacher, but it wasn't until later, in college, when I decided exactly what I wanted to teach. In my lab experiences and student-teaching from LaGrange College, I knew my heart was in the primary (grades). … I love teaching children the foundation. We can't build anything if they don't have a strong literacy foundation and a strong math foundation, and we need teachers that are motivated and passionate about teaching the basics and making sure that they all have those mastery levels. Second grade is kind of the last year that they get that experience. In third grade, they're expecting them to use what they know to explore more science content and more social studies content. Well, if they can't read the text, then it's really difficult to even apply what they know."

Then how should we attract and retain more excellent teachers?

"I think Muscogee County does a really good job with retaining teachers because we have a mentoring program. Not only are you assigned a district mentor, but you also are assigned a school-based mentor. At my school, I'm one of our mentors, so I get to help our new teachers coming in. We have not only one-on-one meetings with them, but we also put all the new teachers together and get to talk with them outside of school. If you're doing to more listening, they're more apt to ask for help. A lot of times they really just want a sounding board, really not a solution. They just want someone to vent with and someone to say, 'OK, what else could we try?' We also have the opportunity to go and speak to our college classes, to actually tell them what's really going on in the classroom, beyond the theory."

On your classroom door, you posted a quote that compares teaching to beekeeping. How are they alike and why is that a good model for excellent teaching?

"It talks about a beehive and how an untrained eye coming to visit might not understand what everybody is doing, but the person in charge will. I, as a teacher, know what's going on, even though a visitor might not understand why children are doing different activities. But in order for all children to reach mastery, we have to use different strategies for them to learn. Often, it's not a teacher-centered classroom; it's a student-centered classroom, where the children are actually driving their learning and I help facilitate what they need by planning their activities."

What's your favorite book to recommend for parents to read with their children?

"One of my favorite books to read is 'Chrysanthemum' by Kevin Henkes. … It talks about a mouse who doesn't like her name because everybody thinks she's different. At the end, we celebrate how special she is, and we need to celebrate the differences in children because they're all individuals. So it helps bring that uniqueness. She learns in the story that it's OK to be different and it's OK if you're not going with the popular crowd. … These are the kids who are going to be our future designers and engineers, and if you tell them they have to stay within these boundaries, we're really in trouble."

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkRiceLE.

BRANDY SIPLING

Age: 35

Experience: Second-grade teacher, Midland Academy, 2006-present; first-grade teacher, Eastway Elementary School, 2001-06; Title I reading teacher, Eastway Elementary School, 2000-01.

Education: Advanced degrees in elementary education, Troy University, specialist's in 2005 and master's in 2002; bachelor's degree in early childhood education, LaGrange College, 2000; diploma, Shaw High School, 1996.

Professional activities: Endorsements in gifted education, 2007-08, and mentoring, 2010-11; model classroom teacher for Cornerstone Literacy, 2010-12; served on MCSD taskforces for Muscogee County Way Phonics, 2012, and Student Learning Objectives in English Language Arts, 2013.

Community activities: Columbus Youth Soccer Association coach, 2002-05; Columbus State University Math Collaborative teacher, 2003-04; St. Luke United Methodist Church Vacation Bible School teacher, 2009-10; Relay for Life team member, 2007-11.

Family: Husband, Ben Robinson, computer programmer at Aflac; son, Carson, 20 months; mother, Cindy McGrotha of Ellerslie; sisters Tia Sipling of Ellerslie and Shannon Sipling of Hilton Head, S.C.

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