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John Herber is a PEOPLE Magazine Teacher of the YearBy: Pensacola News Journal
John Herber's decision to become an elementary school teacher didn't come in the form of a grand epiphany. It wasn't something he'd dreamed of as a child.
But it was the first thing that came out of his mouth when he went to register for classes at Daytona Beach Community College.
"That was the first day I said it, the first thing that came into my mind," he said, sitting in an empty classroom in Oakcrest Elementary.
It's not exactly the kind of response you might expect from the man just named one of PEOPLE Magazine's Teachers of the Year. But the Oakcrest science teacher was among the six winning entries this year for the prestigious title. He was featured in this week's issue of PEOPLE Magazine.
On Monday, he was recognized among his students, staff, the superintendent and representatives from PEOPLE and awarded $4,000 for the school's use and another $1,000 for his personal use.
It probably was not what he envisioned 20 years ago when he signed that registration form, but now, a peek into his fifth grade science class would lead most to believe it was his life's calling.
In a classroom filled with the remnants of past experiments - a counter covered with binoculars, butterfly nets, twirling radiometers, photographs of caterpillars and disturbingly lifelike rubber snakes - Herber sits in the center of 22 students for a lesson on the laws of force and motion. In his hand, a paper football.
"Your goal is to get it to the edge of the table," he instructs them in his distinctly Midwestern tint. "If it hangs off the table that's six points - touch down. If it falls off, it's nothing."
He asks Ahmiyaah Jones, a soft-spoken 11-year-old sitting beside him, for assistance in a practice round.
"Now, it's her job to tell me whether next time I need to use more force or next time, I have to use less force," Herber tells the other students watching intently.
"More force," Ahmiyaah quietly responds.
A few minutes later, the students divide themselves into groups of two and three, flinging paper footballs at one another, calling out "more force" or "less force," and jotting down scores.
To the passerby, it might have appear to be all fun and games, but about five minutes later, a covert lesson is revealed.
"When the football slid off the table, what did that tell you about the force that was applied?" Herber asks.
Twenty little hands shot up.
Within minutes, 22 students have grasped Newton's law of motion: The greater the force applied to an object, the greater the motion.
There is a calm intensity about Herber. During the hour and a half science class, he doesn't raise his voice. But the students listen.
Teaching with results
Eight years ago - the year before Herber started at the school - about 16 percent of Oakcrest students were proficient in science. This year, that number is up to 68 percent.
For many of the students in Herber's class, science has become their favorite subject.
"You get to do cool experiments and learn new things," explains Alicia Charlton, 11, who hopes to someday become a veterinarian.
And the learning goes beyond the classroom. Each year, Herber tasks his fifth grade classes with gathering enough knowledge about the butterfly garden that sits behind their science classroom, to lead weekly tours for younger students.
He doesn't give his students homework, but he does give them each a binder to write about the real-world science they observe outside the classroom on a daily basis - such as how a chair being pushed toward a table demonstrates force. Each observation gets students points toward a coveted mountain bike that sits in the back of the class.
Oakcrest Elementary School Principal Denny Wilson praised Herber's ability to relate with his students.
"He's so approachable, and I think kids know that he genuinely cares for them," he said. "He is just an example of the many missionary-minded people that work here. It's not a job, it's truly a calling for so many people who work here."
Outside the classroom
Herber's efforts and the efforts of his colleagues at the school, where 94.7 percent of children are eligible for free and reduced lunch, have been intense. In addition to teaching in the classroom, Herber also coaches football practice at the school three nights a week, with games on Saturday. Two nights a week, kids on the team are kept extra-long for tutoring. It's a schedule that can translate into about 70 hours a week, he said.
"To do it right, it takes a lot of time," he said. "To do it right, you got to invest everything."
And that investment is yielding results and recognition. The school has gone from an F-grade school when Herber began to reaching an A in 2011.
"What he's done at Oakcrest ... what that whole team has done is a phenomenal story," said Escambia County Schools Superintendent Malcolm Thomas. "They recognize every year is a new challenge."
The school's grade has since dropped to a C in 2012-13 year, but Thomas is quick to note that recent changes to the statewide assessments led to a number of schools receiving lower grades.
"They'll rebound. It just takes a school with their demographics a little bit longer to adjust," he said.
But Herber welcomes the challenge.
"I wouldn't teach anywhere else," he said. "It'd be easier to teach somewhere else, but nah, too easy."
Photo by: Tony Giberson/
Did You Know?
- Starting in 2014, there will be a new GED test
- Starting in July 2013, three Teacher Certification exams will have a new look; PK-3, Math 6-12, and Math 5-9
Viva Florida 1513-2013Five hundred years ago Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León landed on our peninsula's eastern shore and christened it "La Florida." This historic event led to an exchange between old and new worlds, centuries of conflicts and colonizing, and, ultimately, our American cultural melting pot. To help commemorate Florida's 500th anniversary, the Florida Humanities Council is sponsoring numerous programs, events, and resources. Check them out today!
- New! October (PDF, 140KB)
As teacher liaison, my goal is to provide direct communication between educators and the Florida Department of Education. The Just for Teachers website contains information on education legislation, student incentives and statewide programs. Through surveys, regional discussion panels and state-wide roundtable discussions, teachers will have opportunities to give feedback on educational policy. The site also makes numerous resources available to help with the day-to-day challenges of teaching. The Just for Teachers newsletter, sent via e-mail and posted on the site, provides up-to-date news on the latest state-level initiatives and programs.