The highest honor an educator can receive from Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) is the Robert Spillane Leadership Award, and it's only given to those who've made a significant impact on students.
Anyone who's seen Mountain View math teacher Anne Hoffman teach knows that description fits her to a "T." So they were overjoyed when, last week, she received this prestigious award.
"You have to be a special teacher to work with alternative-school students because so many weren't successful in other venues academically or didn't like school," said Mountain View School Principal Jim Oliver. "So you have to have teachers who can work with them and try different styles and strategies to bring out their strengths."
"Anne can motivate and educate students — making it fun and rewarding, the whole time," he continued. "We're just blessed to have an individual who walks in here every day with a passion and commitment that no student will be left behind."
Named in honor of former FCPS Superintendent "Bud" Spillane, the award was presented last Wednesday, Aug. 1, at the school system's 2007 Leadership Conference for all the principals, assistant principals, cluster directors and other FCPS dignitaries.
"It's one of the highlights of the conference," said Oliver. "To have one of your educators recognized is a great feat because of all the fine educators in Fairfax County."
Besides that, he said, "It was an absolute, huge, huge feather for Mountain View and alternative education. For our program to be recognized as having a great, educational leader who makes a difference meant a great deal. It really put us on the map."
Hoffman, of Chantilly's Highland Oaks community, taught three years at Pimmit Hills alternative school and is beginning her third year at Mountain View. She received a bachelor of arts in math from Mount St. Mary's College and previously worked in business.
BUT SHE SOON realized that wasn't her calling so, in 2001, she obtained a masters in education from Virginia Tech's Falls Church campus and began teaching.
"My passion has always been to work with young kids who have had a lot of adversity in their lives," said Hoffman. "So I decided to pursue teaching as a way to reach them."
"My parents are Cuban, so my brothers and I were raised as first-generation immigrants in Philadelphia," she continued. "There were very few Cubans there, and we had language issues."
So Hoffman can relate to alternative-ed students and truly understands the power of help from adults. "Kids have the potential to be something if they get the right support, in addition to their home lives," she explained. "This is who I knew I could touch, and it works."
At Mountain View, her students are ages 15-20, and she says her biggest challenge is always whichever student is her most difficult to reach. Said Hoffman: "I want to make him trust me, work with me and believe in himself."
Most rewarding, she said, is when that same student has a breakthrough and achieves success. For example, said Hoffman, "They come and tell me, 'I got a B in math!'" And it warms her heart "to hear them care, when they never cared about grades before."
"I tell them, 'You need a high-school diploma; this is your way up and out,'" she said. "But that doesn't happen overnight."
"As a country, I really believe we're only as strong as our weakest kids," said Hoffman. "If we don't educate them as well as the other kids, then we might pay for it later in society. But if they at least have a high-school degree, then they can get on in life. They can get a job with a decent income or pursue a higher education."
If a student is determined to quit school, he or she quits, said Hoffman. "But I certainly won't quit on them, no matter how difficult they are," she said. "And to me, it's not work — I love it."
She teaches Algebra I, Geometry and FASTMath — designed for ESOL students, it's the math they'll need for algebra. "Initially, they resist," said Hoffman. "But by the end, they're all doing well. And it's wonderful because they have good feelings about themselves."
And that's a hard-won accomplishment for them, she said. "Many of these kids come to us without their basic needs being met — not even dinner on the table or enough sleep," said Hoffman. Others are working and/or have children and families to take care of.
SO THOSE who know Hoffman, and have seen firsthand the progress her students have made, felt compelled to nominate her for the Spillane Leadership Award.
In her nominating letter, Mountain View counselor Ellen Fay wrote, "In her [teaching] internship, Anne realized the students she was most drawn to were the students who had given up on themselves. She knew [they] were the ones that most needed her help."
Noting Hoffman's the kind of teacher movies are made about, Fay wrote that, like the teacher in "Stand and Deliver," Hoffman transforms her students into people "who believe in their own ability to succeed because their teacher believed in them." And like the teacher in "Dangerous Minds," Hoffman connects with her students and learns each one's "story."
At Mountain View, new students may enroll every few weeks, throughout the year, so they join Hoffman's classes with all different levels of math skills and require individual instruction. So, wrote Fay, Hoffman joined with two other teachers and created math DVDs. That way, since she can't be with every student at the same time, they have another method of instruction.
Assistant Principal Ellen McCarthy wrote that 100 percent of Hoffman's Algebra and Geometry students have passed the SOLs, the last two years. "This is due to Anne's creativity and willingness to go the extra mile. She mentors five students, tutors students on her lunch hour and takes calls from students on weekends and at night."
McCarthy also mentioned that Mountain View chose Hoffman as its Educator of the Year, and she was recognized for this honor by the Dulles Regional Chamber of Commerce. "Anne keeps her eye on student success," wrote McCarthy. "But she also works to dismantle the walls that have barred students from that success."
Math teacher Emilie Woolard wrote that Hoffman calls students before school to make sure they're up and have transportation. And because she gets to know them as people, wrote Woolard, they're "much more receptive to learning."
"She has demonstrated again and again that, with the right balance of unconditional love and attention, each student can learn," stated Woolard. "She has a unique gift for taking a geometric or algebraic concept and making it easy for students of all abilities to understand." First, though, wrote Woolard, Hoffman sits down with her students, earns their trust and soothes their fears. Then they're relaxed and ready for math.
SPECIAL-ED resource teacher Tim McElroy said alternative students "typically struggle with math," but instead of watering down the curriculum to make it easier for them, Hoffman "meets the students where they are and brings them along to where they need to be."
He said she leads by example and her techniques are spreading through the math department. And, he added, "She demonstrates concern and caring for the students that is genuine and to which they respond."
Furthermore, wrote McElroy, "There are times when I am frustrated, tired or just plain worn out from the rigors of teaching, and [Hoffman's] optimism and positive outlook inspire me."
All in all, he wrote, Hoffman "has the enthusiasm of a first-year teacher and the wisdom and classroom presence of a seasoned veteran. She makes our school better and makes me a better teacher."
She's also worked to improve student attendance and doesn't even rest during summer vacation. "She's given two days of her summer, each week, to come in and tutor kids in math — on her own time, said Career Development Coordinator Sharon DeBragga.
"Anne's really deserving of the leadership award," she continued. "And as far as I know, no one from an alternative school has ever won this before, so we were just thrilled."
When Fay asked Hoffman if she could nominate her, the teacher was delighted. "What an honor," said Hoffman. "I was grateful that they'd think of me. I appreciated being recognized for my efforts, and the fact that Mountain View gets highlighted is important to me."
The all-day conference was held at Hayfield Secondary School and 1,500 people attended. The other winner was Theresa Zutter, FCPS' director of alternative programming. "So it was a double win for alternative education," said Oliver. "It showed how important it is as a component of educating all students."
Nominees were announced in alphabetical order but, when Hoffman and Zutter were asked to get at the end of the line — to be announced last — they knew something was up. Hoffman received a plaque and $1,000 and plans to use some of the money for supplies for her students.
"IT WAS JUST incredible," she said. "I think I was in shock; why would I get it over anybody else? It was amazing, and Jim [Oliver] had the biggest smile on his face. It was a great moment I'll cherish forever."
Oliver said Hoffman's award really means a lot to Mountain View's staff and students because they see their school "being recognized for what it is — a place that help students be successful and, ultimately, graduate."
"And Anne goes beyond the call of duty," he said. "Alternative education is a special calling for special teachers, and she definitely fits that criteria. I am very proud."