#8 The Teaching Channel’s Sarah Brown Wessling

Sarah Brown Wessling

HS English Teacher, 2010 National Teacher of the Year, Host — Teaching Channel (Johnston, Iowa)


January Contest: Win a Copy of Carol Jago’s With Rigor for All by emailing me a lesson that worked (email)


 Segment I – Background and Inspiration

Tell your story. Where are you from and how long have you been teaching? What classes have you taught? 

– Sarah comes from a family of teachers and initially wanted to be a teacher and principal. Yet, she started university as a sarahbroadcast journalism major, then switched around from philosophy to psychology until she had an epiphany and realized that she could do all of those things if she were in the classroom. She turned right around and head to the education department.

 Who has helped you in your journey to become a master teacher?

– Sarah has had supportive professors and other teachers that have given her guidance, but it is an accumulation of a lot of factors. She conveyed the importance of experiences, whether it be going through National Board Certification or scoring AP exams that facilitated her growth. 

It is important for other teachers to know that we all have had setbacks in the classroom. Identify an instance in which you struggled as a teacher and explain what you learned from that experience.

– She has had so many but the best-documented example was a lesson for the Teaching Channel, How a Lesson PLan Can Fail. In it you see her thinking out loud, talking through how she was going to correct a lesson that was not going well. Sarah spoke that we will all have similar experiences, and rather than blame external factors that are beyond ourselves, we have to be accountable for what we can be accountable for… and ultimately that is ourselves.

Why teach English and the Language Arts?

– Language is absolutely crucial. It is the way we communicate as humans. Without an understanding of stories, we become more isolated. ELA goes beyond literature it is reading, and writing, and speaking. In a more universal way we need to realize that the Humanities are not dead. Stories are at the heart of the strong arguments currently being written by Malcolm Gladwell and Atul Gawande in the New Yorker.


What is one thing that you love about the classroom?

 – There are so many things that she loves, such as the unpredictability. Yet most of all, she loves watching them become autonomous. It is always a sign of their growth and independence. The other part that she loves is the questions that students bring to the classroom.    

Segment II — Digging into the Teacher Bag of Goodies


 What book do you recommend to a developing teacher?

— Lots of books, yet books speak to different people at different times. She often turns to Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. It has been an important compass because it encourages thinking about who we are as teachers and what the work requires. 


What is one thing a teacher can do outside the classroom that can pay off inside the classroom?
 – Being a parent. It changed her as a teacher. While it didn’t change her instructional strategies, it shifted her understanding of the dynamic of home and school and it also shifted what it was like to want the world for someone. She better understood how to pay attention to kids,individually, because that is what she wants for her child.  

 Is there an internet resource that you can recommend which will help teachers grow professionally?

 Certainly the Teaching Channel. She sees so much value in its videos because we can learn from high-quality instruction. Edutopia, Read Write Think, National Board, NCTE are others. The resources have become an extension, or house, her professional community.  It is about the community, mores than the resources, that are valuable.

What can a teacher can do to make students better writers?

 – She asks them to do a lot of reading aloud of their own work. It gives them the opportunity for them to hear their own voices. sarah 2She uses podcasts for students to hear feedback on their own work as well. We need to remember that writing isn’t something that is going to shift quickly. We can give them formulas but that isn’t going to make them better writers. What’s also important to consider is that writing is as much about thinking, so we need to encourage deeper thinking.

What is your favorite thing to teach?

— It would be Flannery O’Conner. She is her author. Sarah is enamored by her… and confused by her… and angry at her at times.Yet, no matter how many times she reads her work she finds something new. She loves the way that Flannery turns truths around, how she turns it on its head.