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America's Top Teacher Gives Tough Assignments - And Plenty of Support

By David HolmstromStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 5, 1997


When Sharon Draper was a child in Cleveland, the steps of her front porch were a make-believe school. "We had seven or eight steps," she says, "and we'd play first grade, second grade, and you moved up the steps each grade to the top step. I was always the teacher."

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Recently, with President Clinton at her side, Mrs. Draper literally reached that top step. After 27 years of teaching English at Walnut Hills High School in Cincinnati, Ohio, she was named National Teacher of the Year in a White House ceremony.

She was recognized for "her ability to help students comprehend the complex relationships that exist in the world," and for her many contributions to education.

Draper - whose recognition coincides with PTA National Teacher Appreciation Week, which begins today - says she always wanted to be a teacher. "Although my parents never went to college," she says in a telephone interview, "they were educators. They read to me, helped me do homework, and were always there encouraging me to be a good student."

In 1995, Draper became one of the nation's first 150 teachers to receive National Board Certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

But her senior students are more likely to know her as that demanding, caring, and creative teacher who requires a major research paper at the end of the year, the one turned in the day before the prom.

When each student plops the paper on Draper's desk, she offers congratulations and hands out T-shirts that say, "I survived the Draper Paper."

"I don't think kids have changed much at all over the years," she says of the many students she has taught. "If you look at a child, he has questions, needs, and abilities. You deal with his needs, answer his questions, and move him to the next step. Today the world is so complicated, and it is commonplace in all schools to have drugs, gangs, violence, divorced parents, and abusive relationships. These are what get in the way of kids, and their school experience."

Draper, who has four children of her own, is the 46th National Teacher of the Year chosen by the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Scholastic, Inc. Every year the chief state school officers in each state nominate a state candidate. The national winner is chosen by a committee of representatives from 14 leading education organizations in the nation. After Draper concludes teaching this year, she will travel the country as a spokesperson for education.

In addition to Draper, the top finalists this year were: Jan Mitchell, a language-arts teacher at Marshalltown High School in Marshalltown, Iowa; Rosalind Hurley Richards, a fifth-grade teacher at Squires Elementary School in Lexington, Ky.; and George Abshire, a seventh-grade mathematics teacher at Jenks East Middle School in Jenks, Okla.

By the time Draper was in the sixth grade, she had read all the books on the children's side of the neighborhood library. "I had to get a special card," she says, "to go to the big side, as we called it, and read the books there."

After high school in Cleveland, she traveled west for undergraduate years at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., and then earned a masters degree at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. From the teachers who taught her, and from her own classroom experience, she concludes that above all a teacher has to inspire students not only with knowledge but steady enthusiasm.

"I have probably forgotten most of the French Mrs. Brady taught me in high school," says Draper, "but I'll never forget Mrs. Brady, and if I ever go to Paris, I'll remember what I need because of the kind of attitude she had toward learning French. She made French fun, and because of that it has become a part of my being."