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America's Top Teacher Gives Tough Assignments - And Plenty of Support

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When Sharon Draper was a child in Cleveland, the steps of her front porch were a make-believe school. "We had seven or eight steps," she says, "and we'd play first grade, second grade, and you moved up the steps each grade to the top step. I was always the teacher."

Recently, with President Clinton at her side, Mrs. Draper literally reached that top step. After 27 years of teaching English at Walnut Hills High School in Cincinnati, Ohio, she was named National Teacher of the Year in a White House ceremony.

She was recognized for "her ability to help students comprehend the complex relationships that exist in the world," and for her many contributions to education.

Draper - whose recognition coincides with PTA National Teacher Appreciation Week, which begins today - says she always wanted to be a teacher. "Although my parents never went to college," she says in a telephone interview, "they were educators. They read to me, helped me do homework, and were always there encouraging me to be a good student."

In 1995, Draper became one of the nation's first 150 teachers to receive National Board Certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

But her senior students are more likely to know her as that demanding, caring, and creative teacher who requires a major research paper at the end of the year, the one turned in the day before the prom.

When each student plops the paper on Draper's desk, she offers congratulations and hands out T-shirts that say, "I survived the Draper Paper."

"I don't think kids have changed much at all over the years," she says of the many students she has taught. "If you look at a child, he has questions, needs, and abilities. You deal with his needs, answer his questions, and move him to the next step. Today the world is so complicated, and it is commonplace in all schools to have drugs, gangs, violence, divorced parents, and abusive relationships. These are what get in the way of kids, and their school experience."

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