Q&A: Teacher of the Year, Ginny Kalish

When a student in Ginny Kalish’s second grade struggles, she doesn’t blame the child – she gives herself an “F” for the day.

That’s one reason the Palomino Elementary School teacher was named 1999 Teacher of the Year by the Arizona Educational Foundation.

Her desire to inspire other adults to reach out and commit themselves to children is another reason she recently took home a $5,000 award check. The money came from a Wells Fargo grant. She will compete for National Teacher of the Year honors in April.

Kalish, 49, grew up in Waukegan, Ill. She went to Purdue University, graduating in 1970, and got her teaching certification through Grand Canyon University in 1981.

Her two children, Jason, 26, and Mandy, 24, are graduates of Shadow Mountain High School.

Kalish recently chatted online with education writer Rachel Ochoa. Here is their conversation:

Rachel Ochoa: How long have you been teaching? When did you start teaching at Paradise Valley Unified School Districts’s Palomino Elementary School?

Ginny Kalish: I have been teaching for 18 years. I started teaching at Palomino in 1995.

RO: What drew you to Palomino?

GK: I majored in Spanish when I was in college. I have always wanted to use my Spanish while teaching. The administrators and staff at Palomino decided that they were unhappy with their ESL (English as a second language) pullout program. They discovered the research that shows that teaching content in a student’s first language, while the child learns English, helps students be more successful. I embrace that philosophy and wanted to be on board.

RO: What do you think of the anti-bilingual education movement in California and the anti-bilingual sentiments in Arizona? Do you think the movement might affect your job?

GK: The anti-bilingual education movement in California makes me profoundly sad for the children. Yes, they will learn English. But while they are learning English, most will not be able to comprehend the content being taught, and it will take them many years to develop sufficient proficiency in English to be able to learn in that language.

Bilingual education is a very emotional issue. I am hoping that, in my capacity as Teacher of the Year, I can convey the message that we are all on the same side.

We all want the children to learn English. I would welcome the opportunity to serve on task forces or committees to try to avoid having California’s well-intentioned, but misguided, initiative proposed here in Arizona. Hopefully, we can learn from good,successful programs and meet the needs of all students in our state.

As for my job, through my 18 years of teaching, I have had to adapt myself to changing curricula, and I could do so again if need be. We must remember that teachers’ jobs are always changing as we learn more about the science and art of education. Such changes can be a good thing, so long as they are based on research and meeting the needs of all students.

RO: Why did you get into teaching? Are you carrying on a family tradition?

GK: No one in my family is a teacher. I found great joy and wonder in learning from my high school Spanish teacher. She helped me to learn how to truly speak the language and communicate. I discovered how important teaching is when I had my own children. I learned how much I loved it when I started substitute teaching.

RO: How did you get interested in Spanish? Are you a native speaker?

GK: I am not a native speaker. I took Spanish in high school. One day, in a store, I overheard a woman who only spoke Spanish trying to communicate her need to buy some medicine for her sick child. I was able to help her by translating for the pharmacist. After that experience, I was hooked, so I majored in Spanish in college and spent a summer living with a family in Mexico City and attending the university there.

RO: What separates you from other teachers? Style of teaching? Philosophy about education? How would you describe your style of teaching and your philosophy?

GK: There are a lot of wonderful teachers out there. I see exciting things going on every day in other teachers’ classrooms. That is one of the reasons I did not think I stood much of a chance to be named Teacher of the Year.

I think that the key to my success is that I love what I am doing. I empower my students by listening to them, and by adapting my teaching to fit their needs. I respect my students and work very hard to create a safe and happy school environment for them.

I believe that each child is smart, but smart in different ways. I use their strengths and experiences to create successful learning experiences for them. And I don’t give up. If a child is unsuccessful, I view that as my fault. I keep looking for the way to teach that child that will be successful.

RO: What do you think is the formula for a successful student?

GK: A successful student is motivated, works hard and believes that he or she can succeed. Most often, successful students have a strong adult influence helping and encouraging them to succeed. When the students have no one else to fill that role, I try to as best I can in the limited time I am with them.

RO: Do you think teaching has changed over the years? In what way? And is it good or bad?

GK: Teaching has definitely changed over the years. Technology gives students access to a tremendous amount of information. It is not enough for teachers to just teach students facts. We need to teach students how to problem solve and work together. I think that access to more information is a good thing. Teachers need to adapt to that in order to be successful in today’s environment.

RO: What do you like to do in your spare time?

GK: I love to read, bake and watch movies. I recently have developed a bit of an addiction to the game Boggle on the computer.

RO: What is your favorite educational movie? And why?

GK: I love the TV movie about Marva Collins, as well as Stand and Deliver, the story about Jaime Escalante. They took children who were told they couldn’t be successful students and proved to them (and everyone else) that they could.

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