If there’s one thing that unites members of the All-USA Teacher Team, it’s that they don’t go by the textbook. The teachers honored in the newspaper’s annual recognition program develop ways to ratchet up learning and make academics get real:

On the sprawling campus of Felix V. Festa Middle School in suburban New York City, students are building a two-passenger helicopter. So confident is technology teacher Alan Horowitz in their work that he earned a pilot’s license to fly it.

At Parkway Elementary School in the Blue Ridge mountain town of Boone, N.C., Mary Jo Pritchard guides her eighth-graders in writing grants to expand the student-built wildlife habitat and bird sanctuary, where they teach younger students about ecology.

And at Loup County Public School in Taylor, Neb., (Pop. 186), Susan McNeil’s social studies classes devised an address-numbering system for the village, won a $48,000 grant to build a community center, lobbied legislators to support telecommuting and won $79,000 for anti-tobacco programs statewide.

Horowitz, Pritchard, and McNeil are among the 17 individuals and three instructional teams named to the All-USA Teacher First Team. All 20 receive trophies and $2,500 for their schools as representatives of all outstanding teachers; 40 more are named to the Second and Third Teams.

“We honor these teachers for all that they do to turn students into better thinkers and better citizens,” says USA TODAY editor Karen Jurgensen. “In the past month, the country’s teachers have guided the nation’s youth through times of fear and uncertainty. We recognize that imparting subject matter is only a small part of what outstanding teachers do.”

First Teamers were chosen by education professionals from hundreds of nominees nationwide. The winners average more than 18 years’ experience and teach all grade levels and a variety of subjects, from Margaretha Motes, who turned an old planetarium used for gym storage into a first-class astronomy facility for Muncie (Ind.) Community Schools, to Henry Hoffman, who mounts Shakespeare productions with racially mixed casts from the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts Academy.

What makes First Team members outstanding? In ways large and small, they share a willingness to do whatever it takes to help students succeed:

Ginger Smith, who visited a student at a detention center in 2004 and discovered there was no school for her to attend, requested a transfer midyear to start one. She has spent the past seven years building a public school program now housed at the Henley-Young Juvenile Justice Center in Jackson, Miss. As a lead teacher, she also is a counselor, social worker, administrator, and marketing director, bringing in everything from art therapy to conflict resolution and anger management programs.

“If the children need something, you’ve got to meet it. If the parents need something, you’ve got to meet it. In education, we feel our thing is just to teach, but how can I teach you if you’re hungry or your mother is cussing you out?”

Pamela Morse, who teaches hospitalized and homebound students via conference call and visit in Clearwater, Fla., pushes students through sickness and distraction. Teaching subjects from history to biology to French 3, she individualizes lessons, even reading aloud or using audiobooks when students are too sick to read. “My goal is to show my students that they can think and to give them the tools to do that with,” she says. Students, she adds, often perform better than when they were attending school full time.

The CHOICE (Choosing Healthy Options In Cooperative Education) Team of Laury Scandling and Mark Roschy, later joined by Barbara Bonner and Lisa Eagan, worked for five years to build a community among the students most at risk of dropping out of Alaska’s Juneau-Douglas High. Beyond working with parents, social workers, and parole officers to help students, the teachers set up overnight retreats focused on healthful decision-making, internships, and service projects and tutoring. Among students with little hope or family tradition of high school completion, CHOICE has raised the graduation rate to around 50%.

Special education teacher Larry Statler developed a “hands-on, minds-on” Discovery center enabling severely handicapped students to learn along with general education students at Santa Teresa Elementary School in San Jose. Discovery, funded by $50,000 worth of grants, offers so many manipulative that even students not in the program spend lunch recess joining in.

And history teacher Rick Burkhart started an adaptive aquatics program, in which North Charleston (S.C.) High students provide weekly water therapy to kids with orthopedic handicaps.

Though adaptive aquatics and other service learning projects keep him in a chronic state of fundraising, Burkhart is also the “go-to” guy for students from a non-college-going tradition, taking them to college interviews and getting application fees waived. He once worked the phones to find a scholarship for a blind student who was to be apprenticed to a butcher.

“He does a lot of work on a personal level. That’s why he gets so much out of them,” says principal Tommy Mullins. “They know he cares.”

Learning by doing

In an era of high-stakes testing, First Teamers resist pressure to “drill and kill.” Many find that hands-on projects demand that students not only master the content but teach larger lessons of perseverance and possibility.

  • A former “at-risk” student who was told he’d probably be dead or in jail by 18, Henry Brown III uses math-intensive tasks like plotting gardens and designing sheds to teach math at Hallandale Adult Alternative High in Hallandale Beach, Fla. “I don’t believe in teaching to the test,” says Brown, who has nonetheless seen standardized scores rise 40%.
  • Richard Glueck, a sixth-grade reading, social studies and science teacher at Orono (Maine) Middle School, has students work from historic photographs to build full-size replicas of aircraft and spacecraft. After a test flight, a full size 1900 Wright glider was shipped to NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland for use in a film.

“I could lecture and explain and draw pictures, but they would never understand,” he says. “People worry about covering content. Students are able to discover for themselves.”

  • And after Mary Jo Pritchard’s eighth-graders wrote $35,000 in grants and built the wildlife habitat last year, 100% passed county and state tests in reading, literary analysis, and computer skills, and 98% passed the math test.

“If you teach students to think, the tests take care of themselves,” Pritchard says.

But teaching kids to think is far more difficult than tossing answers onto an overhead projector.

“It takes experience and confidence. But you really have to be well prepared. It takes a lot of front time,” says Mary Lynn Peacher, who works 12- to 15-hour days so that her fourth-graders at Jenks (Okla.) East Elementary School can create their own government and a free-market economy.

Front time goes beyond lesson plans. It took Alan Horowitz 3,000 fundraising letters and multiple grants to get $80,000 for the helicopter kit and add-ons. Beyond that, he maintains all the technology equipment and studies constantly to stay on the cutting edge.

And the work never ends.

Robert Fischer, whose Math counts teams have won 17 straight state and one national championship, pulls into the parking lot of Honey Creek Middle School in Terre Haute, Ind., before 5:30 a.m. He hosts Morning Math before school, has Lunch Math through lunch and prep periods, and coaches tennis and Math count after school, staying until 6:30 or so. It’s a schedule he has kept for most of his 33-year teaching career.

“We often joked that Mr. Fischer must sleep under his desk each night,” says Andrew Chi, 18, a Presidential Scholar

Success — whether setting Chi on the path to Harvard or persuading a dropout to go back to school — is always a function of hard work. It’s perhaps the greatest lesson First Team members impart.

“I like to show them that hard work is rewarding. I’m going to work right along with them,” says Susan McNeil, who teaches seven different courses a day at Loup County Public School as well as advising student activities. “It’s very exhausting, but it’s hard for me to imagine doing anything else.”