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.
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.
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.”