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Teaching ‘world changers’: Indiana’s 2023 Teacher of the Year applies history to today

For Tara Cocanower, her students are “world changers”.

“I want them to know that I see them as people who can make a difference in the world and be a change for good,” said Cocanower, world history teacher at Bluffton High School. “What’s the point of getting to know the world if you don’t actively participate in it?”

Every day, Cocanower said her students encourage and support her as she does for them.

“They changed my world for the better,” she said.

Drawn to education as a way to impact her community, Cocanower taught at Bluffton High in her hometown just south of Fort Wayne for nine years. She teaches World History, AP World History and Teaching Principles.

In October, she was named Indiana’s 2023 Teacher of the Year. Cocanower spoke to Chalkbeat Indiana about how she brings the world and community to her classroom, her statewide honor and Grandma Phyllis’ guidance.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How and when did you decide to become a teacher? Have you always wanted to teach in your hometown?

I didn’t think of going to school as a career until my second year of college. I did an internship for an awesome eighth grade history teacher and a caddy taught my old freshman teacher during my senior year of high school, but I only did this to fill time in my job time. People always told me I would be a good teacher, but I didn’t think teaching was prestigious enough, lucrative enough, etc. I wanted to do law, pursue foreign service, or do a Ph.D. in history. In college, I had a teacher who showed me that teaching could be a vocation and a meaningful profession. It changed my trajectory. When I finished my stay in Romania after my Peace Corps service, I prayed to know where I should go next. Ultimately, my grandparents played a major role in my return to Bluffton. I want to live a legacy of service and matter to our community as they did.

Tara Cocanower, world history teacher at Bluffton High School, is Indiana Teacher of the Year 2023.

Courtesy of the Indiana Department of Education

Congratulations on being the state’s 2023 Teacher of the Year. What does this award mean to you? How do you intend to use it?

For me, this award is an affirmation of who I try to be and how I teach/coach. I’m not even the best teacher I know, but I’m good and I’m honored to have the opportunity to represent the amazing educators we have in Indiana. I hope to use this platform to promote civics and social studies literacy. I want to empower and support other history teachers, and really all teachers, in these divisive times. I would also like to support education-based athletics; As a high school tri-sport athlete, college golfer, and dual-sport coach (golf and track and field), I know the value of extracurricular activities both inside and outside the classroom.

What is your favorite lesson to teach and why?

Honestly, I think it changes depending on the personality of the individual classes. When I was teaching in middle school, I would have said lessons about the decolonization of Africa, refugee camps around the world, or ancient Egypt. Now, as a high school teacher, I really enjoy teaching World War I. It encompasses so many different narratives around the world that I think are valuable today. I also enjoy discussing the technology of the time and implementing cutting-edge technologies in our courses, such as Spherodigital Small group education activities and problem-based learning.

What’s going on in the community that affects what’s going on in your classroom?

In Bluffton, we have an organization called Forgotten Children Worldwide, or FCW, which works to protect children from poverty and human trafficking around the world. It was started by a friend of mine, and I try to support him in any way I can. Currently, I am joining them to develop an educational activity on India. FCW founder will tour India in a tuk tuk [a three-wheel vehicle] and document it; and we are currently trying to create an accessible program for teachers and other organizations. We are also fortunate in Bluffton to have hosted several exchange students as well as Ukrainians displaced by war in their country. Our worlds have been brought together, and there is no better resource for me as a teacher of world history than the perspectives of other countries.

How do you approach current events in your class?

Carefully. In my 13 years of teaching, it has become increasingly difficult to navigate using current events, but I cannot avoid them and I continue to believe that I am serving students well.

I would say that I approach current events as an information facilitator. Current events spark the best discussions, and thinking about them reminds me of many times when tears were shed because our hearts were broken by tragedies in our country and around the world. I try to diversify the media from which students choose to get information, and we do a lot of work to develop historical reading skills to prepare us for research. We try to corroborate different sources, and then I encourage them to form a personal opinion supported by evidence. They know they have the right to disagree with each other.

I work hard to model civil discourse through Socratic seminars, analysis of historical texts, etc. My opinion doesn’t really matter within the walls of my classroom, and it’s always a compliment when students aren’t able to easily identify my personal bias or point of view. of sight.

Finally, I always try to share ways students can get involved to make an impact or encourage them to take the conversation we started back to their families. It’s a privilege to work in partnership with parents, and I love to hear that what I teach spills out of the classroom onto my students’ dining tables, couches, and patios.

What is the best advice you have ever received and how have you put it into practice?

The best advice I’ve ever received comes from my grandmother Phyllis. As a child, I could sometimes be a little proud and arrogant when showing off my accomplishments. Without fail, each time, she told me “I’ll tell you; you don’t tell me. To me that means the reward was for doing it – not for the accolades I earned from it. The Bible tells this many times, but for me, Matthew 6:1-2 has always been what I think about.

I don’t teach for rewards, money or fame; I teach because children matter and I believe serving others is the best thing you can do with your time. Social media has only made things worse. Many of us share our highlights with the world and base our identity and value on the number of likes we receive. As a high school teacher, I see firsthand the damage this is causing to our young people.

I try to celebrate and affirm my students’ accomplishments as much as possible, but I encourage them to do anything because it’s the right thing to do – not because they’ll be praised for it or given a trophy for that.

What are you reading right now?

“The Splendid and the Vile” by Erik Larson.

I want my students to know that I don’t know everything and that being a reader is a superpower. During the school year, I mostly read non-fiction which supports my lessons and pushes me to keep learning.

MJ Slaby is Chalkbeat Indiana’s bureau chief. Contact MJ at [email protected]



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