Georgia Milken winner: I teach kids, not curriculum

Greg Ott was making bets which of his colleagues was in line for Milken Prize. It was him.

Greg Ott was making bets which of his colleagues at Northwestern Middle School in Milton was in line for the $25,000 Milken Prize. It was him. Vino Wong, vwong@ajc.com

Teacher Greg Ott figured that state school Superintendent Kathy Cox was at Northwestern Middle School to announce that one of his colleagues had won the prestigious Milken Educator Award. He began to offer wagers on who it might be.

Ott lost the bet, but won the award, becoming one of 16 teachers nationwide to receive the top honor and $25,000 this year.

That's a pretend check. The real one comes in May and is already spoken for by Ott's wife who is thinking kitchen. AJC/phot

That's a pretend check. The real one comes in May and is already spoken for by Ott's wife who is thinking kitchen. Vino Wong, vwong@ajc.com

I visited Ott in his Milton classroom on Wednesday. (There is a Q&A with Ott in my Monday Learning Curve column. )

I did not see any pyrotechnics or sleights of hand. I saw a smart man who understood adolescents and expected a lot of them.

His class is organized, fast-paced and focused. He checks in with students as they sit down and gets them on task quickly. A Florida native, Ott knows his students, even though he sees 110 in the course of a day.

He’s imaginative with technology, a skill celebrated in his Milken biography. His own Website is one of the best teacher sites I’ve seen, clear, clean with links to forms and current assignments.

After graduating the University of Florida – his class walls are full of inspiring sayings and Gator posters – Ott sold power tools, but wanted a career with less travel after he married. (His license plate is “EduGator.”)

He began teaching and honed his craft in Charlotte where he taught at a less affluent school. In a blue collar school, he says the students pose greater challenges.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” he says. “I had kids who needed more than I knew how to give them. It taught me what was important. I learned that you teach kids and not the curriculum.”

And his students benefit. As one former student wrote after learning that Ott had won:

“Congratulations, Mister Ott! You were my middle school teacher many years ago and have remained my favorite teacher throughout my entire scholastic career. My mom called me this morning when she saw the article and said only ‘Who’s your favorite teacher ever?’ to which I proudly replied – YOU!”

At a wealthier school like Northwestern, Ott says the parents tend to present the greater challenges. He says his expectations are high, sometimes leading to upset parents. He says his tough reputation will likely prevent a line of parents outside the principal’s office requesting him next year in the wake of his award.

“I really try to mix high expectations with support structures to enable kids to meet those expectations,” he says.

Ott ended up in Georgia 10 years ago because of his wife’s retail job. Moving only a few weeks before the start of school, he made a happy discovery. The principal of his Florida middle school was now at Northwestern. The sudden departure of a language arts teacher created a slot for Ott.

He and his wife don’t have children, which allows Ott to be one of the first teachers at Northwestern in the morning and among the last to leave in the afternoon.

In the Q&A, Ott talks about his concerns about testing. In his own concession to standardized tests, he opens his class with a white board lesson in grammar and sentence structure, allotting seven minutes or so because he knows his students will be tested on those conventions. But the rest of his class is discussion oriented around literature and writing.

I will close here with Ott’s wonderful response to a question on what makes a good teacher:

“Passion, persistence, creativity, empathy and a genuine commitment to making the subject matter engaging and challenging yet accessible to every kid who walks through the door. A good teacher will care more about the kid than the curriculum. A good teacher is always looking for a better way to teach something they’ve taught a hundred times. A good teacher will show their kids the way rather than telling them what they need to do.
“A good middle-school teacher doesn’t forget that in spite of every annoying thing that a kid can do to drive them crazy, they are just children and they need to know that you care about them even when you are exasperated.
“And a good teacher will give every kid a fresh start and a smile every day they walk in the room regardless of what may have happened the day before.”

15 comments Add your comment

Resolve

October 25th, 2009
6:31 pm

Congratulation to Mr. Ott. And congratulations to the Milton community. Great teachers are hard to find.

ScienceTeacher671

October 25th, 2009
7:19 pm

Congratulations to Mr. Ott, but if you don’t teach the curriculum, exactly what are those kids learning?

Veteran teacher, 2

October 25th, 2009
9:58 pm

What he means is that he teaches students the content rather than teaching the content to students. There really is a huge difference in those two ideas, and all the really great teachers know the difference.

Congratulations to Mr. Ott. Enjoy the moment!!

oldtimer

October 25th, 2009
10:23 pm

concrats..You done good……A hard road to folow

Reality 2

October 25th, 2009
11:01 pm

I sure wish there are more teachers out there who think of children first as Mr. Ott does. There just aren’t enough of them out there – too many whiners and complainers.

Dr. John Trotter

October 26th, 2009
12:42 am

Mr. Ott, congrats on your well-deserved reward! Keep up the great work! You are the quintessential educator, and, even as a true Bulldog, I still find myself pulling for Tebow, Spikes, and Meyer — but not on the upcoming Saturday! I am very proud of you!

Dr. Craig Spinks /Augusta

October 26th, 2009
5:31 am

Mr. Ott, you make us educators proud!

Jennifer

October 26th, 2009
6:05 am

Congrats, Mr. Ott! Way to go!!!! I believe he represents the majority of teachers in what he does. Resolve and Reality, there are LOTS of great teachers out there. Reading this article, I know that I do what Mr. Ott does. And even though I’m a widowed mom, I come early and stay late when I can, and haul home a bag full of work each day. Mr. Ott represents many of us! Congratulations, again!!!

Reality 2

October 26th, 2009
6:54 am

Jennifer,

I’m sure you do your best. Unfortunately, you see a lot of counterexamples to your argument here all the time. I hope someday soon, teachers like Mr. Ott becomes the “average” teacher in GA schools…

Reality

October 26th, 2009
8:42 am

Here is an award….. how about pay for work! Why is it that other State workers get furloughed days and they don’t work those days, but teachers have to work and not get paid? Isn’t that called SLAVERY?

Sharon Wade

October 26th, 2009
9:38 am

Congratulations Mr Ott,
We have never met but I am grateful for you and thank you for service in the education world. “Kids first and not just curriculum”.

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Fulton County Observer

October 27th, 2009
6:25 am

Congrats, wouldn’t it be nice if the Fulton County Board of Education supported all of it’s teachers in their endeavors?

Fulton County Observer

October 27th, 2009
6:51 am

Opps I forgot, their concerns are North of APS. HMMM, FCBOE hasn’t jumped on the band wagon to file suit against the Sonny Perdue formed Georgia State Charter Commission, I wonder why? Oh, that’s right, they wait to see the results from other counties and then jump on the band wagon when they want to increase the education gap and disparities between North and South Fulton. Isn’t that what happened with the M to M program? They waited to see what would happen when other counties dropped the program and then when they saw it could again deprive the disadvantaged students in South Fulton and the Board members high tailed it to their legal “experts” and did away with the program. Congrats again to Mr. Ott from a North Fulton School.

Charter School petitioners, look out, the Board cannot wait to see the legal outcome of these lawsuits against the Commission because they consistently deny any charter petition that will support the education of South Fulton students, as always. So Victory Charter failed and the Board member who supported it so fully now has a bad taste in her mouth and she will not support any charter that is in her area! Except if it is headed by an EMO that has lawsuits coming out of their yang yang and not by the community members who are well aware of the dire needs of their children.

Wow a unanimous vote not to approve the first all male charter school in South Fulton because of Title IX funding that the school system would lose, even though research has shown that single gender class rooms and schools fair better than co-ed schools, what does the FCBOE school board have against educating all students equally? We wish we knew!!!

Gwinnett ought to be proud that Ivy Prep is there to make them look good academically; those young ladies support their own education while educators want to take it away from them. Our small group of concerned citizens hopes that the Courts see beyond the greed of these school systems and their inadequate board members that are cheating the students out of a decent education because they can’t get it together to adequately serve the students in the public school systems.

Taxpayer money being used illegally? Ha, there are taxpayers who do not have children in these school systems and they support charter schools. How about asking them if they would rather their money be utilized to ensure a decent education for students in order to assist them in becoming productive citizens or pay have over half of their taxes used to build jails and prisons for those who cannot and do not succeed in the public school system?

Fulton County Observer

October 27th, 2009
6:52 am

Opps I forgot, their concerns are North of APS. HMMM, FCBOE hasn’t jumped on the band wagon to file suit against the Sonny Perdue formed Georgia State Charter Commission, I wonder why? Oh, that’s right, they wait to see the results from other counties and then jump on the band wagon when they want to increase the education gap and disparities between North and South Fulton. Isn’t that what happened with the M to M program? They waited to see what would happen when other counties dropped the program and then when they saw it could again deprive the disadvantaged students in South Fulton and the Board members high tailed it to their legal “experts” and did away with the program. Congrats again to Mr. Ott from a North Fulton School.

Charter School petitioners, look out, the Board cannot wait to see the legal outcome of these lawsuits against the Commission because they consistently deny any charter petition that will support the education of South Fulton students, as always. So Victory Charter failed and the Board member who supported it so fully now has a bad taste in her mouth and she will not support any charter that is in her area! Except if it is headed by an EMO that has lawsuits coming out of their yang yang and not by the community members who are well aware of the dire needs of their children.

Wow a unanimous vote not to approve the first all male charter school in South Fulton because of Title IX funding that the school system would lose, even though research has shown that single gender class rooms and schools fair better than co-ed schools, what does the FCBOE school board have against educating all students equally? We wish we knew!!!

Gwinnett ought to be proud that Ivy Prep is there to make them look good academically; those young ladies support their own education while educators want to take it away from them. Our small group of concerned citizens hopes that the Courts see beyond the greed of these school systems and their inadequate board members that are cheating the students out of a decent education because they can’t get it together to adequately serve the students in the public school systems.

Taxpayer money being used illegally? Ha, there are taxpayers who do not have children in these school systems and they support charter schools. How about asking them if they would rather their money be utilized to ensure a decent education for students in order to assist them in becoming productive citizens or pay have over half of their taxes used to build jails and prisons for those who cannot and do not succeed in the public school system.