ABOUT THE FINALIST Carmen Veller
Education: Bachelor's degree in secondary English education from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga; master's degree in instructional leadership from Tennessee Tech University
Years in education: 19
Years at CSAS: 19
Family: Married to husband, Van
"Everyone has to participate in democracy. Not just the smart kids. Not just the smart citizens. The best education for the best is the best education for all." - teacher Carmen Veller
Once they've read Romeo and Juliet, ninth graders in Carmen Veller's English class begin a project to help synthesize what they've been reading.
She tells them they are going to create a soundtrack to Shakespeare's play. They'll have to come up with a list of songs, explain why they fit in with the theme of the play and create an album or CD cover. She assures them that content is just as important as appearance; non-artists need not worry.
As Chattanooga School for Arts and Sciences students begin to brainstorm images that would represent the play's themes - flowers, lightning bolts, celestial symbols - Veller makes her rounds to each table where groups of three or four students sit quietly while sketching ideas. She gives each student a few precious moments as she leans over and asks about their work. They share their ideas and look to her for approval. She offers kind words and constructive criticism.
The walls of Veller's third-floor classroom are covered in student work, including essays on "The Hunger Games" and past art projects that she's had students complete. She sees art and music as a way to reach kids who might not connect with words.
Her students say the projects they do in Veller's class makes literature come alive. And she takes the time to make sure students understand the works they read and connect it to their lives.
"She teaches to the teenager," said ninth-grader Jessica Tolbert. "She makes things that are dull fun."
Veller's unique approach and use of humor keep her high school students interested and engaged. Instead of doing grammar lessons on sentences about blue jays, Veller has been known to come up with practice sentences on zombies.
"People enjoy laughing. And she uses that," said ninth-grader Alex Fisher, who said he used to hate English before taking Veller's class.
Yet they say she's a challenging instructor with high expectations.
"I don't have a reputation for being easy," Veller said. "That's a lot of work to get to these connections. Its truly tough, hard work. And if you have to take some detours and talk about zombies, that's OK. It makes it fun."
Parents and school leaders laud Veller's commitment to teaching all students, regardless of their ability.
"It's her dialogue with the students. It's about that underlying belief and commitment to the learner that I'm going to give you my very best," said CSAS Upper School Principal Barbara Jordan.
In her nomination for the award, parent Amy Petulla noted how Veller taught her gifted daughters and her son, who has Down syndrome, taking care to individualize the instruction to maximize the potential of each child.
"While this can be relatively easy with very bright students, it is much harder to accomplish when including a child with intellectual disabilities..." Petulla said.
To Veller, that's nothing extraordinary. It's a reflection of her underlying belief that all students deserve the best. And she sees delivering the best as part of her role in preparing students for life beyond school.
"Everyone has to participate in democracy," she said. "Not just the smart kids. Not just the smart citizens. The best education for the best is the best education for all."
With the ever-increasing pressures associated with high-stakes assessments, she admitted it can sometimes feel that students' aren't recognized as the individuals they are. When kids only value their worth in terms of test scores, it can take the joy out of the whole process of learning, making education seem formulaic or proscribed.
That can sometimes cause students to lose sight of the value of education - value which far exceeds just getting into college or getting a job, Veller said.
"Even if there's not a joy in it for some kids, they should at least see a purpose," she said. "There has to be something besides just graduating to get a job."
Veller says people often wonder why anyone would want to work with teenagers. But she said, despite popular notions, teenagers are exceedingly honest and open. They identify with characters throughout history, especially the honorable ones, and have a true interest in what's happening in the classroom.
"I know a lot more apathetic adults than I do kids," Veller said.
The highlight of Veller's job is what she calls "Aha! moments," in which the classroom becomes a forum for open discussion and honest exchanging of ideas.
"It's not forced and it becomes organic. Those moments do happen," she said.
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249.