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May 25, 2015 | Volume 90 Number 15


photo: Elementary School Teacher Lynn Woods weaves faith into her life and teaching lessons.

Elementary School Teacher Lynn Woods weaves faith into her life and teaching lessons.

A Distinctive Philosopher Teacher

A person of integrity.

These are the words that Sister Barbara Brahl, IHM, principal of St. Gregory the Great School in Virginia Beach, used to describe Lynn Woods, the school’s eighth-grade literature and language arts teacher.

The National Catholic Educational Association’s Elementary Schools Department named Mrs. Woods one of its nine 2015 Elementary Distinguished Teachers from across the nation.

“This award honors someone who exudes everything that encompasses a Catholic school teacher,” said Christopher Trott, NCEA’s elected representative for Region Four. “They not only share their faith but also their talents, experiences and love of children.”

NCEA, founded in 1904, is a professional membership organization that provides leadership, direction and service to fulfill the evangelizing, catechizing and teaching mission of the Church. NCEA’s 150,000 members include elementary schools, high schools, parish religious education programs and seminaries.

Each of NCEA’s 12 regions is eligible for the distinction which is presented annually to outstanding Catholic elementary-school teachers. Virginia is in Region Four, also encompassing Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Sister Barbara said she and the school’s admission director Amy Hutchens nominated Mrs. Woods for the Distinguished Teacher Award because she is a wonderfully innovative teacher.”

“She has a dedication to teachers, to students and to education,” said Amy Hutchens, St. Gregory’s Admissions Director and the person who nominated Mrs. Woods for the award. “She puts that energy into keeping the classroom engaging and keeping up with technology.”

Robert Herring, Region Six elected representative, said applicants are measured according to a number of specific criteria:

Mr Herring noted that Mrs. Woods stood out from other candidates with her philosophic approach to Catholic education, incorporating Catholic faith into her lessons.

“Being distinguished among other Catholic educators is very humbling,” said Mrs. Woods, who was surprised by the honor.

“I have always thought of myself as an ordinary Catholic educator,” she continued. “Then it dawned on me that all Catholic educators are distinguished educators because, like me, our focus is not only on the academic learning of our students but on sharing our faith and moral beliefs.”

She said that she hopes that in sharing her faith, she is teaching her students that challenges are not battles to win or lose but rather opportunities to grow according to God’s plan.

“Academics are important, but we teach children, not subjects, so it is the whole child that we spend our days with in the classroom,” she said. “It is the whole child that grows up to be the faith-filled Catholic that we need in our world.”

Mrs. Woods, who was born and raised in Alabama, said there was no pivotal moment when she felt called to be a teacher but noted that she often played school as a child.

“I think I just always knew I wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “It kind of feels right, like this is where I’m supposed to be.”

She received her bachelor of arts in elementary education from Birmingham-Southern College in 1974 and her master’s degree in curriculum instruction from the University of Virginia in 2000. She is licensed to teach kindergarten through eighth grade.

Woods was raised a Baptist, but converted to Catholicism after marrying “a cradle Catholic.” Because her husband was in the Air Force, she spent 30 years moving with her family throughout the United States, often teaching in the local elementary and middle schools. She also taught at private schools in Africa when she lived on the Ivory Coast and later in Morocco.

The bulk of her teaching experience — 17 of the 23 years — has been in Catholic schools where she has been able to weave her faith through her lessons.

photo: Eighth graders at St. Gregory the Great School in Virginia Beach follow the lead of their teacher, Mrs. Lynn Woods, this regions 2015 Elementary Distinguished Teachers award winner.
Eighth graders at St. Gregory the Great School in Virginia Beach follow the lead of their teacher, Mrs. Lynn Woods, this regions 2015 Elementary Distinguished Teachers award winner.

“My goal as a teacher is for my students to be able to clearly and concisely articulate their values and faith in words and actions,” she said. “I want them to see the connection they have with God and to each other in their lives, to see how we’re connected to everything and everybody and what impact they can make on each other.”

Sister Barbara lauded this aspiration.

“She lives Catholic philosophy,” Sister Barbara said. “She integrates Catholic values and social justice issues into her lessons.”

Mrs. Woods follows the educational standards set by the Diocese, but she chooses how to meet those standards. For example, she selects literature that addresses social issues and has moral lessons in hopes that she is laying a strong foundation for her students. Her guided reading leads students to explore how much choice they have in their lives and how their choices affect their well-being and the well-being of others.

“Teaching my students that they have a choice and how to go about making that choice to live in a moral and just way as a Catholic is of paramount importance to me,” Mrs. Woods said.

Each year Woods teaches a Holocaust unit where she incorporates Catholic values, literature, research skills, writing and history.

This year’s efforts were recognized when she won The Holocaust Commission of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater Esther Goldman Teacher Award.

Using auditory, visual and hands-on learning, Mrs. Woods strives to be creative in her lessons. When the class was reading ‘Outsiders,’ she assigned the students to do a character analysis by making a playlist of music they thought the characters would listen to. The students then chose a medium, such as an essay or Power Point presentation, to explain why those particular songs matched the characters.

Mrs. Hutchens said that is just one example of Mrs. Woods’ many innovative projects. She credited the project as being a way for the students to better relate to The Outsiders, making the book very “personal to them.”

Mrs. Woods, emphasizing that different students need different approaches, said she loves to apply different ways of teaching,

Her most effective teaching experience was last year when she switched tactics when teaching the novel ‘The Giver’ by Lois Lowry.

“I decided to abandon the quizzes, projects, and tests to just read the book aloud with my students,” she explained.

It took about three weeks of dedicated class time to read aloud as the students followed along in their own copies of the novel. They would stop periodically to discuss vocabulary and ideas and to answer student questions.

photo: Mrs. Woods with Mrs. Amy Hutchens, Admissions Director of St. Gregory’s. Mrs. Hutchens nominated Woods to The National Catholic Educational Association’s Elementary School Department award panel.
Mrs. Woods with Mrs. Amy Hutchens, Admissions Director of St. Gregory’s. Mrs. Hutchens nominated Woods to The National Catholic Educational Association’s Elementary School Department award panel.

Mrs. Woods explained that at first it felt risky spending so much time without some hard evidence to prove the class was learning.

“No one paid attention to time, and we were all startled when the bell rang for class to be over,” she added. “At one point in the reading, one of my self-described non-reading boys, shouted out how he hated one character for his actions! I was amazed and pleased that he was so into this story.”

After finishing the book, many students were eager to read the sequels on their own.

“I will never forget this shared reading experience,” she said. “It is the type of assessment that I value as an educator.”

Mrs. Woods’ students said they appreciate her willingness to try new approaches to learning.

“She’s a fantastic teacher,” said Emma Briggs. “She’s creative with our lesson plans. She makes learning fun.”

As Sean Delatte said, “She keeps us engaged.”

Jim King, interim director of the NCEA Elementary Schools Department, called Mrs. Woods “a vibrant lifelong learner,” and applauded her efforts to improve overall teaching skills by participating in EdCamps (an ‘unconference’ for teachers) and using technology like Twitter to follow and interact with other educators.

Mrs. Woods then takes what she has learned and shares it with her peers, both near and far. In fact, Mr. Trott said he had never met Mrs. Woods before the NCEA awards ceremony, but he had ‘known’ her through #catholicedchat, a Twitter group that ‘meets’ on Saturday mornings.

“As a colleague, she does a great job in sharing her knowledge with the rest of us in the community,” he said.

Mrs. Woods was one of seven teachers in the region to be nominated for the Distinguished Teacher award, Mr. Trott said.

“It’s recognizing that you are doing something significant in the classroom and that you serve as a role model for other teachers,” he said.

Sometimes the fruits of her labor are readily apparent.

“In the classroom when I’m struggling to get something across to kids, there’s an “aha” moment when you can see that they are taking in what you taught and using it.”

“Every year, I get to start over,” she said. “A new school year has so much promise.”

“I think the smell of crayons and school supplies get my blood going,” she jested.

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