At 9 a.m. second-grade students are fresh from the playground, squirming as they line up outside their classroom. Katie Ferguson smiles and welcomes the 7-year-olds inside. They recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and also their classroom motto: "We work the whole time." It's Ferguson's most important tenet and key to the rigorous, Zen-like, non-stop learning that is her trademark.
"Katie expects a lot from her kids, which is important in a district like ours," says Schenectady Federation of Teachers President Juliet Benaquisto.
An estimated 74 percent of students at Jessie T. Zoller Elementary School in the City of Schenectady School District are eligible for free or reduced lunch, one key indicator of students living in poverty. Most of Ferguson's students also receive breakfast in the school cafeteria.
In 2008, the school was recognized by the State Education Department as a Rapidly Improving School, which means that, although the school did not meet state standards, it did show measurable improvement toward closing the achievement gap in each of the three preceding years.
Ferguson teaches in an integrated classroom setting, where more than 40 percent of students receive additional educational services.
None of those statistics matter to Ferguson, New York State's Teacher of the Year for 2012. "Our classroom motto is ‘we work the whole time,'" Ferguson says. "If they're not mentally exhausted by the end of the day then I'm not doing my job." Her mission, she says, is to make sure her students, no matter the challenges they face, have the foundation they need to achieve their fullest potential.
"I want them to recognize that, even though some things may be hard for them, those hard things are the steps toward their success," says Ferguson, who credits her special education certification as a critical asset in providing individualized instruction for her students.
"Katie Ferguson's commitment to individualized instruction has been instrumental in her students' continued success," says NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira. "Her passion for professional development is paying big dividends for her students."
The most important element in differentiating instruction is "getting to know your students and how they learn," Ferguson says. An elementary education teacher must ensure students meet New York State Learning Standards across multiple content areas. Ferguson begins with assessment. She aligns the curriculum with the standards and then figures out how to ensure each child can meet them.
The integrated setting adds to the challenge, since some students are further behind than others and, Ferguson says, "need much more repetition, consistency and practice than other students might."
Finding the right strategies to help all her students succeed is easier now because of the other professionals in her classroom. "I'm blessed with an amazing team," she says.
Her team includes special education teacher and SFT member Julie Foster, and paraprofessionals Anettka DeGoski and Kathy Grady, members of the SFT Paraprofessionals Unit.
"Julie is an outstanding educator, incredibly knowledgeable about students with special needs," says Ferguson. "Kathy and Anettka are also incredible paras who have a terrific grasp of how to scaffold instruction to make it more understandable, and support those learners who need just a little bit more so they, too, are successful."
Ferguson uses choral response, for example, as a way to ensure students are participating and internalizing direction. It also instills good learning habits, which she calls the students' four major jobs:
• Start right away;
• Work neatly and quietly;
• Stay in one spot; and
• Work the whole time.
Once they internalize this, students can work independently, enabling Ferguson to spend more time teaching, instead of directing.
In a classroom where many students still sport baby teeth, every transition — from the Pledge of Allegiance, to working in literacy centers, to small group work, to a whole class lesson — is smooth, seamless and drama-free when a three-note chime fills the air.
"When they hear this bell it means clean up what you're doing, stop and look and listen," she says. "And they all listen for the announcements and then I say, ‘Happy Centers' and they go to the next place."
Although known for her literacy lessons, her math lesson is equally engaging.
"John has six pencils," Ferguson tells students, who sit with white boards and markers in hand.
"Now, boys and girls as you draw your pencils, are you going to take time and draw a nice picture of a pencil? No. You're going to draw it fast so that you can compare."
The children draw quickly as Ferguson continues "... and Susan has eight pencils." By the time she asks her students "How many ..." small hands are already in the air.
Ferguson is a third-degree black belt and certified instructor in tae kwon do. Perseverance, self-reliance and indomitable spirit are aspects of martial arts that she brings into the classroom. "These are things I like to teach the children, in terms of their own lives so they can raise themselves up as students and little people," she says.
Ferguson wants her students to know the American Dream is within reach. "It's so important to me that not one of those children sees themselves as a victim of circumstance. I know they can do it. I'm proof they can do it," says Ferguson, the oldest of seven children who remembers her family's own struggles.
Ferguson says being Teacher of the Year, is "a reflection of all the wonderful teaching going on in our school district. And perhaps I was chosen because my district has given me the opportunity to be the teacher that I am and that that teacher is what represents the teachers of New York State: professionalism, dedication, excitement and love of learning."
Ferguson's award also means a lot to SFT members. "Times are very difficult, with all of the pressure that's on schools. So when we see a member who's being recognized for all the good things that many of us do, it really lifts our spirits," Benaquisto says.
Ferguson offers this advice for improving the image of public educators:
"First, decree your degree. Teachers are highly trained professionals, requiring a master's degree in our state. Even if the public knows this, simply seeing the degree posted somewhere in your classroom is a visual reminder of the level of training that was required to attain the position. Doctors do it, so why shouldn't we?
"Second, sometimes humility is best left at the front door. We are great teachers who deserve to be recognized. It's crucial that we share our successes with each other and celebrate those successes.
"Third, funding education is funding our future. There isn't anything more important."