Los Altos High School teacher makes way to Washington, D.C.

After competing against more than 550 applicants nationwide, Michelle Bissonnette, an English teacher at Los Altos High School, has a new role in Washington, D.C.

The Department of Education selected Bissonnette as one of three Teaching Ambassador Fellows to work as a full-time employee of the department for the 2009-2010 school year.

"I will have the opportunity to listen to education professionals from all across the country," Bissonnette said. "I am humbled by such an incredible opportunity."

Attributing her success to her time at Los Altos High, Bissonnette said she learned from her peers that teacher leadership and collaboration are invaluable catalysts for school improvement. From the parents and families, Bissonnette said she discovered the importance of having a supportive and involved community that can be an extension of classroom instruction.

Kathy Sulaver, a longtime friend and colleague at Los Altos High, said Bissonnette makes learning "fun" and "energetic," and that students have often remarked how much they enjoyed being in her class.

Sulaver described Bissonnette as a "very passionate, bright educator who believes that all kids can succeed." Whether the students have socioeconomic challenges or learning issues, Sulaver said Bissonnette goes beyond required expectations to motivate and inspire students of all ethnicities.

"She has challenged us as a staff to look at underachieving students through a different lens," Sulaver said. "I am confident Michelle will bring her quick wit, passion and strong sense of self as she approaches her new job in Washington."

Margaret Lewis, a 2008 Los Altos High graduate who met Bissonnette at a community event as a sophomore, said students love Bissonnette and always say she is "totally real." Lewis described Bissonnette as a mentor, teacher and friend.

"She understands young people both at a personal level and professional level," the student in the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University said.

Lisa McLean, whose son Robert was Bissonnette's student as a freshman and senior, said Bissonnette identified the reasons Robert struggled his freshman year, and helped to build his confidence even when he was not in her class.

"She can take a child who isn't the best student and make him feel like he is, and (that) he can accomplish (anything)," McLean said.

Robert graduated from Los Altos High in 2008 and is now an Airborne Ranger in the U.S. Army.

McLean said it is "a bummer" that Bissonnette will not be at Los Altos High for the next academic year, "Because I have another child that's going to be a freshman at the high school next year, and she won't be there."

Bissonnette said she will be on leave during the next school year, and does not know "what the future holds" after her temporary assignment in D.C.

The Department of Education created the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship in 2008. The program aims to create a community of teacher leaders and policymakers, to involve public school teachers, prekindergarten through 12th grade, in developing policies and expanding teacher leadership at the national, state and local levels, according to the program's Web site.

Bissonnette, who applied last year as well, said she has always believed that policymakers should have the input of educators when making decisions that directly impact students.

"It has been my frustration with a lack of actual educator perspective (in government), along with my own desire to develop my leadership that led me to the fellowship," she said. "That and the fact that I am a political junkie."

Besides being a full-time teacher for 10 years and earning a master's degree in urban high school leadership from San Jose State University three years ago, Bissonnette has a package of experiences, including working for non-profit organizations, as a mentor to new teachers, as a summer-school administrator and as a member of the local teachers' union.

The specifics of Bissonnette's assignment in Washington are still under negotiation, but she said it is likely that she will either work in the Office of Communications and Outreach or the Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development. With a philosophy that teaching should be positive, empowering and enthusiastic, Bissonnette said she would bring her passion for advocacy for students who are traditionally at risk and an awareness of the importance of educators challenging all students at the highest level.

"One-size-fits-all is the most common form of public education and yet, it is the least effective," Bissonnette said.

While the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District is relatively immune to the severe budget cuts that plague much of California, Bissonnette said that does not change her concern about the impact on all school districts because cutting education funding must not be an option when it comes to balancing a budget – even when there is a tremendous deficit.

"But I don't have any easy answers," she said. "I just know that our young people cannot be the victims of our shortsightedness and failure."

Last year, the Department of Education selected five Washington Fellows and 20 Classroom Fellows, who remained in their respective schools and performed fellowship duties for the department. This year, however, the department reduced the number of Washington Fellows to three because of budget constraints. The decision on Classroom Fellows is pending.

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