Wonder Woman in class

A national expert on teacher effectiveness once told me that you don?t want a freshly minted teacher or a time-worn veteran for your child. Young teachers are too green, he said, and older teachers are too disenchanted.

He hadn?t met Gwen Desselle. A 32-year classroom veteran, Desselle is Georgia?s new 2010 Teacher of the Year. The Colquitt County High School social studies teacher impressed judges with her humor, passion and adaptability.

?Gwen is ready to take on new challenges and teach in different ways to reach today?s kids,? state Department of Education official Susan Ely said. ?She makes history come alive. When we visited her class, she was talking about when President Eisenhower came to Moultrie, and she showed the students pictures of her husband as a small child on Main Street watching the president go by.?

To teach her students about the Lewis and Clark exploration, Desselle incorporated a fictional diary that reported the epic through the eyes of a dog on the journey. When teachers dressed as action heroes for homecoming, Desselle turned to a history book rather than a comic book. ?I knew Wonder Woman and her bracelets would not be best suited for my body build — Linda Carter, I ain?t — so I opted for my own interpretation of the day?s costume and went for Paulette Revere,? she says.

Chosen out of 147 district-level teachers of the year, Desselle stood out for her enduring delight in introducing students to the character of George Washington and the compassion of Abraham Lincoln and in teaching them to locate central European countries on the map. When she encounters former students, Desselle says, ?They spell Czechoslovakia, but I never have the heart to remind them that their greatest challenge is no longer a country.?

She, her husband, a fellow teacher, and their son have traveled the world, and she re-creates those trips for her classes, sparking ripples of laughter with her account of an amorous ticket taker in the Great Pyramid. Her own teaching deepened, she says, after she became a mother to her son, Jay, the salutatorian of his high school class and now an international affairs major at the University of Georgia.

?I realized that my students were just kids,? she says. ?I realized their limits and their lack of maturity.?

Desselle doesn?t cast herself as a miracle worker or guru. Teaching, she says, remains a day-by-day, student-by-student struggle. Although she can cite instances where her entire class of low achievers passed the Georgia High School Graduation Test, she says, ?I have taught classes the same year in which less than five students passed.?

Her secret to remaining excited is that she doesn?t give up on herself or her students. She seeks out professional development opportunities. She doesn?t disdain technology, capitalizing on it to reach increasingly passive teenage learners who have to be roused from their own narrow worlds to see the larger one around them.

Desselle believes that what she and her colleagues do is honorable and important work and that teachers themselves must stop denigrating their profession and their students, whether in the faculty lounge or under the hair dryer at the local salon. In her county, Desselle says, most teachers pay a final visit to the beauty parlor before school resumes in the fall. ?Last summer, the beautician told me I was the only customer who did not complain about returning to school,? she says.

As Teacher of the Year, Desselle will travel the state next year, and her message will be that bright, young people belong in teaching and that public education is not a lost cause. In her Teacher of the Year questionnaire, she wrote:

?We must stop behaving as though education is shipwrecked before we climb aboard. Certainly, we want our state to break every record on student achievement and have the highest SAT scores in the nation.

?I believe we will ultimately succeed but I shall let the number crunchers analyze test scores. I have something more important to do. Young people need my help in preparing for their future. They count on me and I will not let them down. I am their teacher and I have the greatest job on earth.?

Maureen Downey writes about education Mondays. Reach her at mdowney@ajc.com.