Olympic torchbearer lights lamp of learning for her students
Shannon Garrison and her students at Solano Avenue Elementary School have a special reason to look forward to the 2012 Olympic Games in London. To honor her work with children, the fourth-grade teacher was selected to carry the Olympic flame for a quarter-mile through Edinburgh, Scotland, last month.
"It was a whirlwind — absolutely amazing," said Garrison, a graduate of the Teacher Education Program
(TEP) at the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies. "The day was so special. There were so many people, including whole classes of students from local schools, who came out to cheer on the torchbearers. ... I felt like my class was there in spirit."
Alumna and fourth-grade teacher Shannon Garrison in Edinburgh, where she carried the Olympic torch in celebration of the London 2012 Olympic Games. Photo courtesy of Shannon Garrison.
Garrison was selected as one of five teachers to carry the Olympic Torch on June 14 by the Samsung Corporation and John Legend’s Show Me Campaign
as a way to recognize teachers who go "the extra mile." A Grammy-winning singer-songwriter, Legend, who formed a nonprofit to fight for education reform in the U.S. and against poverty in Africa, also carried the torch through Edinburgh and met with the teachers chosen to take part in Olympic history.
"It was the experience of a lifetime," said Garrison. "From the moment we got there, we were treated like royalty. We got to have dinner the last night on the queen’s [yacht], the Royal Britannia, with John Legend. He was there to support the teachers and made a big point of congratulating us and thanking us for what we do."
Garrison, who also won the Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award in 2008, is no stranger to such accolades. She has also done her part to help her school win honors. Solano Avenue Elementary was designated a National Blue Ribbon School in 2009 and received its third California Distinguished School recognition this year after she wrote up applications for these titles.
Receiving the Milken Award expanded her career perspective, she said.
"From that moment on, my career changed," Garrison noted. "I have a more expanded view of how I, as a teacher, can make a difference. Before the award, I tried my best to make a difference in the school and local community. Now I have bigger aspirations."
She’s making a difference nationally as a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, an independent, bipartisan group that sets policy for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly known as the nation’s report card. The assessment provides objective information on student performance to policymakers and the public at local, state and national levels.
Among her responsibilities as a teacher, Garrison counts "making people aware of the state of education."
"It’s news for a day, and then everyone [shrugs], ‘Oh yeah, we’re not doing very well in the United States,’" Garrison said. "There are a lot of organizations out there that are pushing for policy changes. But if you don’t know about them, then your voice is not heard. I’m making sure my voice is heard, that other teachers can be heard as well. And I’m letting parents know how they can advocate for their child."
Garrison, who came to Solano in 1997, is one of only 10 teachers there and, as the only fourth grade teacher, has in her classroom both children with limited English as well as those fluent in English. So it’s a challenge sometimes for her to ensure that her lessons are appropriate for every skill and language level, she said. "It’s really about focusing on meeting the needs of each individual child," she said.
Earning her teaching credential at the GSE&IS provided "an absolutely perfect balance" between the philosophical and practical training she needed as a teacher in an urban school. She credits mentors like Sheila Lane, a faculty adviser with TEP, and Nancy Parachini, director of the Principal Leadership Institute, for propelling her to success.
"Everything I’ve been able to accomplish up to this point I owe to UCLA and the base that I got there," Garrison said. "The TEP program allowed me to develop my own philosophy on education based in research. … When I have a parent asking, ‘Why are you doing your lesson in this way?’ I have a reason."
The support she received as a student at UCLA, she said, "was amazing." And she continues to seek advice when she runs into problems. In return, she said, "I’ve been able to go back and share what I’ve learned in the classroom with some of the new students who are going through TEP. That connection has been great as well."
Garrison, who also holds master’s degrees in psychology from Pepperdine and in administration from CSU Northridge, also instills goals for higher education in her fourth graders by taking them to UCLA’s "I’m Going to College" program.
"The best gift a teacher can receive is the knowledge that they have made a difference in a student’s life. Each year, many of my students come back and tell me where they are going to college," Garrison said. "This year, several are on their way to UCLA. They’ve known since fourth grade that they were going there. And now they are. It’s pretty cool."