Meet the 2012 APA TOPSS Excellence in Teaching Award recipients

Learn more about the 2012 TOPSS “Teachers of the Year”

By Jann Longman, MA

Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools

This year 11 teachers applied for the APA TOPSS Excellence in Teaching Award, and every one of them was an exceptional teacher.

But by any measure, this year’s award winners are an extraordinary group. With more than 40 years of teaching psychology between them, these teachers exemplify what good teaching can be.

All three winners of this year’s award are accomplished teachers of psychology, but what sets them apart are classroom projects above and beyond usual teaching and the enthusiastic letters of recommendations from students and colleagues.

Maria Vita, who teaches at Penn Manor High School in the heart of Amish country in Millersville, Pa., started the Advanced Placement (AP) Psychology program there. Although Vita started out her teaching career with a degree in history, she is now considering graduate work in psychology.

When Vita started at her school, there were three sections of regular psychology. Now there are up to five sections of regular and three sections of AP psychology, and the school has had to hire another teacher to accommodate the demand.

Vita is known as the “rat lady” because she maintains a rat lab for both regular and AP students. During a three-week unit, she has students use classical, operant and cognitive conditioning techniques to teach the rats. The students themselves and parents help pay the expenses in her rural community. Vita gave a mini presentation on her lab at the Clark University workshop in 2010.

One of her favorite lessons to teach is one on Albert Ellis. She believes that our thoughts can trump emotions, and she encourages her students to use rational emotive behavior techniques to give them power over traumatic events and disappointments. She had students use this regarding the drama of prom this year. Instead of the irrational thought, “I have no prom date, so I am a loser,” the counter thought was, “I have no prom date, so I am going to find a great one!”

To help students master concepts, Vita has a poster contest that has now turned into a review wiki, and her students create motivational tee shirts that they share on the Web and Twitter to help review for the AP test.

Kimberly Patterson, our next award winner, teaches at Cypress Bay High School, a predominantly Hispanic high school of over 4,400 students in Weston, Fla. It is one of the largest high schools in the country, and she teaches seven sections of psychology this year with a class load of 280 students.

Patterson first taught health occupations at her school, which was a natural lead-in to psychology. Her high-energy teaching motivates students with all backgrounds and ability levels. Her favorite unit to teach is neuropsychology, and she loves it when students have an “aha” moment when she is teaching difficult concepts.

Patterson started the Psychology Honor Society in her school, which has 150 members. Members must have passed AP psychology with an A or a B and have at least a 3.0 GPA. The honor society has a lecture series that brings in experts in the field of psychology, and the group also does community service projects that relate to psychology. Public awareness campaigns in the school are other projects of the honor society. This year the honor society is focusing on mental health awareness and eating disorder awareness.

Another activity Patterson started is the annual South Florida Psychology Bowl, which consists of both a poster competition and a question-and-answer single elimination bowl game.

To keep students on their toes in class, Patterson features activities such as assembling candy neurons, creating “tribes” in the social psychology unit and creating stress and health psychology videos.

Patterson has presented to numerous professional groups, including presenting a talk on “Staying Positive About the Biological Bases of Behavior,” this year at the AP annual conference. She also participated in a panel on race and ethnicity in teaching at this year’s APA convention in Florida. Patterson also has served on the TOPSS Committee as the membership coordinator.

Laura Brandt is the final award winner this year. Brandt has worked on numerous TOPSS committees and projects and is a past chair (from 2007) of TOPSS. She has been described by a colleague who works with her as being a “rock star” in the teaching of psychology.

Brandt taught last year at Grayslake Central High School in Grayslake, Ill., but this year returned to Adlai Stevenson High School (in Lincolnshire, Ill.) for her 12th year of teaching there. Stevenson is a suburban school with 4,000 students, and this year Brandt is teaching AP psychology and online courses in AP. Brandt has master’s degrees in both American history and psychology and administrative credentials in educational leadership. She has worked in a leadership position with other teachers at Stevenson to develop goals and development plans and has created staff-development training.

Brandt says she loves psychology because of the immediate benefit to students. Students can apply what they are learning to explain and improve their own lives. Some of Brandt’s favorite units are neuroscience, because it is always changing and adding to what we know about human behavior; memory, because it can help students with their studying; and social psychology, because students are able to make deep connections to their own lives.

Along with a colleague Brandt started a psychology club and has also worked to create a psychology quiz bowl, which brings together students from the Midwest to compete on knowledge of psychology concepts. She has also helped run a psychology fair, where students conduct and present original research projects.

Brandt’s numerous presentations have included classes on activities and resources for teaching about the brain, several week-long College Board AP psychology workshops and presentations on mentoring new teachers.

We are fortunate to have these teachers in our ranks, as are the hundreds if not thousands of students who have taken their classes.

Laura Brandt  Kimberly Patterson  Maria Vita

Laura Brandt, Kimberly Patterson and Maria Vita (pictured above from left to right)