When Genein Letford wanted to teach her third graders about architecture, she did not just flip open a textbook and copy information on a chalkboard.
Instead, she rounded the children up and took them on a field trip to her alma mater, University of California, Los Angeles. It is this alternative approach that contributed to her recent Great American Teacher Award, presented by the Ron Clark Academy in Georgia.
“My style of teaching is crazy, in a good way though,” Letford said. “I love to incorporate fun and unusual elements to help engage and stimulate the classroom.”
Letford, who studied psychology at UCLA and later obtained her teaching credential at CSUN, is now music director at New Academy Canoga Park. She won this year’s award at the second annual ceremony in Atlanta after being named one of the five finalists chosen to receive the honor.
“I applied for the award in August, found out that I was a finalist in mid October, and was flown to Georgia on Nov. 19 to 21 for the ceremony, where I found out that I won,” Letford said.
Great American Financial Resources awarded Letford with $10,000 for personal use, a portion of which will be donated to a charity she supports, as well as an additional $5,000 to be used within her classroom.
Other prizes included a Promeathean ActivBoard white board and an audio enhancement system to make lessons more interactive, she said.
“I can’t express what an honor it is to have been chosen for this award,” Letford said. “I’m so very thankful for all I’ve been given and am reminded of how much further I have to go to serve as an instrument of education.”
One way Letford maintains interactivity in the classroom is through music, she said. Most recently, she taught her students all about math using a comparison to music notes and encouraged writing skills while Beethoven played in the background.
Music is a great way to incorporate other disciplines and even other cultures, she added.
“My classroom is made up of children from a low-income demographic who haven’t had the opportunity to travel or really experience other cultures and traditions,” she said. “I recently taught my students about Korean music and loved being able to bring a cultural edge to the day.”
When it comes to lessons of any kind, the most important factor is the instructor’s ability to both connect with the students and provide a fun and exciting forum for learning, said Stacey Billone, 22.
“Having an upbeat teacher who strives to make the classroom an enjoyable place makes all the difference to the overall ‘school’ experience,” said Billone, English major.
Letford’s recent win stems from a similar passion for making every school day one of note, said Kim Bearden, co-founder of the Ron Clark Academy in Alpharetta, Georgia, who is responsible for the award.
The Great American Teacher Award began as an antidote to the Disney Teacher Award, which was stopped in 2006, she said. Instead of letting hard working teachers go unnoticed, the administrators at the nonprofit school began to work on a new forum for recognizing teachers in the U.S.
In order to draw attention to those who make a difference in the world of teaching and education, Bearden and Clark began the Great American Teacher Award in 2009, Bearden said.
Alongside Bearden and Clark, a committee of corporate sponsors including Dell, Verizon and Delta, as well as private and public school educators, worked to narrow down the thousands of applicants.
The process included written testimonials and viewpoints of teachers who applied, as well as recommendations from those he/she has worked with.
After Letford was selected to fly to Atlanta, she stood before a panel of nine judges to proceed to the final round of voting.
“Not only did she have to give a speech, but she had to endure being grilled by the panel,” Bearden said. “Genein articulately answered all our questions about issues in education accurately, and proved herself to be a worthy recipient of this year’s award.”
As a founding member of the New Academy Canoga Park, Letford has proven herself to be both an educator and an innovator, Bearden said.
The Ron Clark Academy exists to both teach students and teach educators, as the field is all about consistent improvement, she added.
“Genein exemplifies the type of teaching our school hopes will be the future of education,” Bearden said. “It is too often that education is looked upon with a negative eye, which is why we want to honor those in the community who are creative, passionate and as admired in the field as she is. It was our honor to be able to give her this award.”