Outstanding Teaching in an Election Year

By Kelly Rankin
September 15, 2016

For Corey Thornblad, a civics teacher at Kilmer Middle School, this is going to be an exciting school year, to say the least.  

For starters, as FCPS’ 2016 Outstanding Teacher she was the guest speaker at the school system’s Great Beginnings Summer Institute – a four-day support and mentoring event for instructional staff new to FCPS – where she shared her experiences with the new recruits.

Then, with the new school year underway, she begins teaching her grade seven and eight students about the rights and duties of citizens and how government works in what seems to be a rather strange election year.

However, if you’re Thornblad, you are excited by the notion of teaching during a presidential election. “It’s awesome teaching in an election year,” she says. “This year is the perfect opportunity to teach kids about respectful communication.” With this kind of enthusiasm and optimism, it is easy to see why Thornblad is FCPS’ Outstanding Teacher for 2016.

Recently, Human Resources communications spoke with Thornblad about why she became a teacher, what it means to be named Outstanding Teacher, teaching civics during this election cycle, and her favorite teacher.

Prior to becoming a teacher, you worked in communications on Capitol Hill. Why did you change careers?

At the time, I was the Director of Communications for Congresswoman Jane Harman. By any measure, it was a great job. But, there was something missing.

Then, one day at a school event in Los Angeles, Congresswoman Harman’s home district, I was sitting in the back of a classroom watching the kids pepper her with questions. I had this sense that I didn’t want to leave. That moment was a ‘lightning bolt’ moment, I couldn’t ignore it. Within a month, I had applied to George Washington University to do my master’s degree. 

What were your thoughts when you found out were named the 2016 Outstanding Teacher?

I was blown away and humbled at receiving the honor. There are so many incredible teachers in Fairfax County doing great things every day. I feel like a representative of them and the work they are doing.

It was also overwhelming how happy my colleagues were for me. Kilmer is my second home, so this really is our award. I am the teacher I am today because of every person in that building.  Receiving this award is a great opportunity for us to celebrate all the great things happening at our school.

Does being named Outstanding Teacher change your approach to teaching this year?

It won’t change how I teach; I will continue to keep the focus on sound instruction. However, it has provided me with more opportunities to help other teachers across the County. I spoke to first-time teachers to FCPS at the Great Beginnings Summer Institute last month. [Read Thornblad’s advice to first-time teachers].

I also have name recognition among the kids I don’t teach! Now, they say hello to me when they see me in the hall!

Turning to the presidential election, how will you approach this year’s election with your students?

I love teaching during a presidential election. The subject content is immediate, the discussions are happening everywhere around the students, on the news and at their dinner tables. It is also the time in their lives when they first become aware of elections and are old enough to participate in the discussion.

This election cycle is different from most. How will you deal with the lack of civility that permeates much of the discourse?

Sure. We’re not seeing the ways we want kids to communicate being mirrored in the outside world. So, the first task is to teach them about civil discourse and how we talk to each other.

Our nation is built on discourse and respectful disagreement. As teachers, we have to model this behavior and show children that it’s possible to listen and understand another person’s perspective even if we disagree with them.

However, it is not our job to tell them what to think. We teach them to question their sources and make them aware of biases. I tell them it isn’t important what I think. It’s what they think that matters.

What about the fact that one of the candidates in this year's presidential election is a woman?

Of course. I definitely think we will highlight the historic nature of a woman being at the top of the ticket. Students need to understand that this has never happened before and that regardless of the outcome that having a woman in this position, will likely pave the way for more women to be in leadership roles in the future.

That said, in terms of evaluating the candidates -- we'll be sure to focus on the issues and the candidate's stances on those issues, when encouraging students to make decisions about who they believe will best lead the nation forward.

In a nutshell, the fact that one of the candidates is a woman is certainly part of the story, worthy of a mention, but ultimately, I want them to focus the bulk of their attention on the candidates' stances on the issues.

Last question: who was your favorite teacher?

There were so many. But, Judy Reid, my second grade teacher at Barnard Elementary in Tulsa Oklahoma is the one I think of most. I learned so much about being a great teacher from her. She was the most innovative and creative teacher; way ahead of her time. Ms. Reid made us own our own learning, and was the only one at the time who said the child needed to be a part of the parent-teacher conferences. I still remember the things we talked about.


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