I’d love to be a fly on the wall in the classrooms of Elizabeth Lanfranki and Brian Wheeler, named 2014 Contra Costa County Teachers of the Year on Thursday.
During phone interviews with them Friday, I conjured up images in my head of kids screaming vocabulary words in Lanfranki’s English classes at Martin Luther King Jr. Junior High in Pittsburg and teens tinkering with automotive technology in Wheeler’s classes at Alhambra High in Martinez.
At 24, Lanfranki is only about a decade older than her students. The Las Lomas High graduate (class of 2008), who grew up in Walnut Creek, said she uses her voice and body language to engage her students.
For example, students in her sixth grade English class have no trouble remembering the difference between “mood” and “tone” in literature.
“I have the students form an M with their hands and we say: ‘Mood affects me.’ And they point to themselves.”
This helps them to understand that mood is related to how the reader feels after poring over a piece of literature, she said.
Tone, on the other hand, reflects the author’s attitude. To drive this point home, Lanfranki and her students demonstrate a bit of attitude themselves. They change their voices and move their heads back and forth, saying “tone,” with an attitude, she said.
“So, when they come to the test, they’re going to remember tone versus mood, because they have the gestures in their heads,” she said. “It’s whole-brain teaching when you throw in a gesture with a word.”
Lanfranki also encourages her students to scream vocabulary words to help them remember them. A reading comprehension technique she uses teaches students to break down texts into smaller chunks and analyze the words and paragraphs to better understand them. This is especially helpful for English language learners, she said.
Lanfranki has also started an after-school intervention program and is involved in several clubs including the Builder’s Club, which focuses on “building community through service,” she said. She said she is excited to have received top recognition as an exemplary teacher in the county at such a young age.
“I’m a product of Contra Costa education and I know how many great teachers there are out there,” she said. “I’m just honored to be recognized among them and for my peers to think that I’ve achieved this feat.”
Although Wheeler is 30 years older than Lanfranki, he has only been teaching a year longer. For three decades, he worked as a collision repair technician, fixing crashed cars.
He said he decided to pursue teaching on the advice of his wife, who is an elementary school principal in Fairfield, where they live. His relationships with his wife and his adult sons, he said, have taught him the importance of building strong connections with others.
“It’s my treasure in my life,” he said. “That’s the thing I want to pass on more than anything else — is to show kids how to have great relationships. I’ve been married for 33 years to the same woman. I have great relationships with my three kids.”
Wheeler’s former student, James Bailey White, said Wheeler’s life lessons were an important part of his classes.
“Mr. Wheeler was without a doubt the single most influential and effective teacher I have had in my collective learning career,” Bailey White said. “He sees no student as an enemy, and has always built excellent rapport with pupils, even with the most difficult ones.”
Wheeler praised the Alhambra High community, which has supported him in his teaching career.
“It is an incredible privilege to teach in Martinez,” he said. “When I came to work here, the people wrapped their arms around me and have helped me. This is an incredible place to work.”
But his real secret to success, he said, is his wife, who taught special education in elementary and high school and was also a first and second grade teacher, before becoming a principal.
“My wife is my secret weapon,” he said. “My wife is an incredible teacher, so I got trained every night when I went home.”
What do you think are the secrets of successful teachers?