Memphis special education teacher given national honor

| Memphis Commercial Appeal | Jane Roberts

A few years ago, Josalyn Tresvant McGhee was on the fast track at SunTrust Bank, pulling ahead as a management trainee because she tended to lose herself in her work. On Monday, the special education teacher at Knight Road Elementary got $25,000 and plenty of assurance that her try-this-it-all-costs career change was right on.

McGhee, 34, is one of four teachers nationally honored with the Fishman Prize for Superlative Classroom Practice. The award is given by The New Teacher Project to a tiny handful of teachers whose work exemplifies what it takes to move the needle in high-poverty public schools.

An hour after the pomp and circumstance, flowers, uncut cake and tears, she was up to her elbows in sweaty children, working the concession stand for the school field day in a cafeteria short on air-conditioning.

“Yep, we still have field day,” McGhee said.

Four years ago, she came to Knight Road through Memphis Teaching Fellows, a one-year teacher certification program for people who want to leave 9-to-5 jobs to teach.

“When I had to tell my regional president that I was leaving, he said, ‘I wanted you to make a difference; I didn’t want you to quit your job,’” McGhee said.

If SunTrust hadn’t insisted that employees give back, she says she never would have known how much she loves teaching. For her, it started as Junior Achievement volunteer, trying to help third-graders understand why business plans matter.

“One particular part of the curriculum said there was a lot of reading in this lesson,” she said. “You may want to check with the teacher to see if all the children could do it.”

What she learned was that more children couldn’t read on grade level than could. In a flash, she remembered how important reading was to her own childhood and success. And she was hooked, mostly because she was so upset.

“Before I wanted to be successful, because I wanted my projects to succeed. But those faces of my students? I have to be successful for them.”

All of McGhee’s students have learning disabilities. She has several hours a day to help them turn the tide, working mostly in small groups of mixed ages outside their regular classroom. Every minute has to count because while McGhee’s working her magic, they’re missing out on what’s happening in class.

“It is very difficult. It is so hard to really affect change in every student when you don’t get an opportunity to see them as long as you would like to,” said principal Yvette Renfroe. “Each has different needs.”

“She’s definitely getting children who are several grade levels behind. She’s catching them up, making two, two-and-a-half years’ growth in one year’s time,” said Victoria Van Cleef. “What she is doing with her kids is amazing. She has a special relationship with her students.”

The Fishman Prize is named for Shira Fishman, a math teacher in the District of Columbia Public Schools who started teaching through TNTP’s D.C. Teaching Fellows program in 2004. She was the 2011 DCPS Teacher of the Year and received a 2011 Milken Educator Award, which also comes with a $25,000 prize.

The application process is open to full-time teachers in high-poverty public schools. This year, more than 570 teachers from nearly every state applied. About 100 were invited to submit teaching videos and references; 20 were named semi-finalists. Each had an unannounced classroom observation by a TNTP staff member. From there, nine finalists were invited to New York for interviews.

This is the third time in less than two years that a Memphis City School teacher has received such high praise. East High’s Meah King received the Milken award in 2011. Last fall, Richland Elementary teacher Allyson Chick was named Tennessee Teacher of the Year.

Alicia Nutall, the fifth-grade reading teacher who nominated McGhee, says she’s seen children go from failing to proficient in less than a year because of McGhee.

“She’s always inspiring not only the students but the teachers as well. She’s a team player; she’s a leader, and she’s always helping.”

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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