Our Stories

And the Winner is …

It seemed like an ordinary school assembly to biology teacher Elisa Schorr '01. The student body at Portland's Roosevelt High School gathered in the auditorium for a presentation by the district and the state superintendents. Schorr wasn't even planning to be there — she was supposed to go on a field trip with her science students — but her boss mysteriously gave her more and more administrative assignments until she couldn't go.

So there she was at the assembly, fulfilling her secondary duties as one of the school's deans. Her watchful eye went from student to student as she kept them in line — turn off your cell phone, stop acting up, no talking. She was barely listening for the first half of the assembly.

Then an unfamiliar woman started speaking, someone who wasn't on the agenda. "Who is that?" Schorr thought. She listened as the woman discussed what it takes to be a good teacher, and how she was there to present a prestigious award to an educator at Roosevelt. "Then she called out my name," Schorr says. "I was shocked, because at this point, I thought it was another teacher at the school."

And that's how Schorr joined the elite group of just 80 teachers nationwide to receive a 2007 Milken Family Foundation Educator Award, a coveted honor referred to as the "Oscars of Teaching" by Teacher Magazine. The $25,000 awards make up the nation's largest teacher recognition program and honor up to 100 outstanding educators every year. This is the second year in a row that a Willamette graduate has received the award — Larry Conley MAT'99 was honored in 2006. At least two other Willamette alumni also have won the award, including Hendrea Ferguson MAT'95 in 2003 and Dave Bertholf '90, MAT'92 in 2000.

Schorr, who has been teaching for seven years, was selected for her exceptional talent, accomplishments in instruction and results in student learning, her potential as a future leader, and her inspiring presence that motivates and impacts students, colleagues and the community. "Many times when you're teaching, you don't really know if you're doing a good job, at least not right away," Schorr says. "Kids don't come up and say, 'Thanks for doing that lesson today.' Later you might see them enroll in a second science class or get into college. It's cool to have an award that says you're good at this. More teachers deserve honors like this."

Schorr wasn't planning on becoming a teacher when she majored in biology and played golf at Willamette (her last name at the time was Winger). She originally considered becoming a doctor, but after graduation, she signed up for a different type of service — Teach For America. She spent two years in an inner-city Houston middle school teaching science to a group of predominantly Latino students. Her Teach For America co-worker quit after her first week.

"It was a fairly challenging school. There was not a lot of support for education at home. Kids really struggled with school, and half of them didn't graduate. What helped me was getting to know the kids and getting to know the other teachers I worked with. I'd go to them and ask, 'How do I deal with this child?'"

The experience opened her eyes to the struggles of students who didn't have all of life's advantages. It was a stark contrast to Schorr's childhood, living comfortably in Portland and attending private schools. When she finished her Teach For America stint, she took a job at Roosevelt High and has been there since. Roosevelt's student body is diverse — about 40 percent are African-American, 38 percent are white, and the rest are mainly Latino and Asian. Almost one-third of the students are homeless at some point during the year, and between 70 and 80 percent participate in the federal free and reduced-cost lunch program.

"These students are very different in terms of their families and home life. But students have a lot of curiosity. Even if they're a couple of years behind in reading, they still want to learn the concepts. They have more struggles to get to school — no food, no place to stay the night before — but they have amazing diligence."

Roosevelt is divided into three small academies, each focusing on a different subject area. Schorr teaches at the POWER (Pursuit of Wellness Education at Roosevelt) Academy, which emphasizes math, science and health. All freshmen and sophomores take either two math or two science classes, and seniors are required to take one Advanced Placement college-level science course.

Advanced math and science can be a tough sell with students, which is why Schorr works hard to present her lessons creatively. She leads the students in hands-on experiments and finds ways to keep them constantly moving and participating through activities such as building models or playing games. She also tries to incorporate technology into her lessons to engage the students. One of her students told The Oregonian, "I didn't really like science until I came here, but now it's, 'Science — yeah!'"

"My kids let me know very easily if they don't get something," Schorr says. "When kids struggle with behavior in the classroom, it makes it obvious to you that you're not teaching them right."

Besides learning to become a better teacher, Schorr also has acquired a sense of humility from her students. "I may not have a lot of food in my cupboard, but at least I have something to eat this weekend. Some of my kids come in Monday and say, 'I didn't have anything to eat.' It definitely helps keep me grounded."

Schorr's co-workers have said they could see her becoming a school administrator, a move she is considering. She's currently pursuing a master's degree in educational leadership.

"In my seven years of teaching, I think I've worked under 13 different principals. That's definitely one of the issues I see in high-need schools. It's a pretty hard job and very time-consuming. But it's also constantly rewarding. If you respect and trust the kids, they treat you with that same amount of respect and trust. You get to know these kids really well. Even though we didn't have school today, I've had some students call me all day for help on their final. If these students don't have good teachers, they're not going to make it."