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Change has been an integral part of the American education system since the 1830s (Lucas, 1999) when universities began preparing students to teach. Over the past 20 years, changes including federal mandates (Disabilities Education Act, 1990; No Child Left Behind, 2003) and increasing diversity in school populations require a responding sensitivity from classroom teachers. In the midst of challenges that these changes present, teachers are increasingly asked to do more.
Research shows that nearly 50 percent of new teachers leave within the first five years of teaching, citing issues such as lack of preparation and mentorship, working conditions, pay, and issues with parents as reasons for leaving (Guarino, Santibaez, & Daley, 2006; Imazeki, 2004; Darling-Hammond, 2003; Johnson, 2004; Ingersol, 2001). Traditional education pre-service programs and school administrators are at the center of a discussion regarding how well new teachers are being prepared for careers in education and how current teachers are equipped to adapt to changing requirements (Levine, 2010).
The results of numerous studies have shown that experienced, effective teachers are the single most influential factor affecting student achievement (Stronge, 2007; Darling-Hammond, 2000; Traina, 1999). In order to recruit and retain effective teachers, it is critical that institutions of higher learning provide essential pre-service experiences and that school administrators provide effective support programs and in-service opportunities for new and early-career educators to stimulate performance and invigorate internal motivation. One way to better understand experiences and support systems that are important to developing effective teachers is to learn from teachers of excellence.
The purpose of this phenomenological study was to understand the experiences of seven national award-winning teachers. Seven themes which define teaching excellence emerged: teacher-student relationships, safe learning environment, active participation, teachable moments, high expectations, real-world experiences, and honoring your personality. Implications for research, universities, school administrators, and teachers come from the findings and add to the literature on teaching and leadership.