Spotlight: Leslie Sullivan (SC '19)February 27, 2020
Leslie Sullivan (SC ’19) turned her $25,000 Milken Award into an economics lesson on taxation and budgeting: “When students are engaged with the content, they remember far more of it.” She won South Carolina’s 2019-20 Milken Award at Palmetto Scholars Academy in North Charleston on February 11, 2020.
Milken Family Foundation: What do you like about high school students?
Leslie Sullivan (SC ’19): Teaching high school is challenging in all the best ways. Teenagers are curious. I have to be on my toes constantly to challenge them and keep up with their ever-changing lives. I have also taught middle school, and while I really did enjoy it, I really enjoy the independence of older students.
MFF: Your AP U.S. History students have posted notable results on the AP exams. What’s your approach?
Leslie: When we decided to offer AP U.S. History, we weren’t sure it would be the right fit for our gifted curriculum. We decided that we wouldn’t teach to the test. Instead, I would teach the content using a gifted style and then offer extra help preparing for the exam on weekends in the spring for those students who wanted it.
We also decided we would let students choose whether to be in AP or Honors U.S. History based on their interest, rather than having to be selected. I think that has helped my students succeed on the AP test—the ones who end up taking it are the ones who are truly excited about history.
I like to make class interactive and try not to lecture too much. Debates are good practice for writing essays. When students are engaged with the content, they remember far more of it. If they are having fun and able to interact with the content through active discussion and activities, there is no need to drill the content.
MFF: How did you end up in education?
Leslie: I knew that I wanted to be a teacher from the time I was in middle school because I was lucky enough to have so many great teachers myself. I originally thought I would teach elementary school because I really liked working with younger students. But then I had a couple of really incredible teachers in high school that made me change my mind. It seemed like such fun to be able to challenge high school students while having a large impact on their life, both socially and emotionally. My original plan was to be a math teacher, but in college I realized I was much more passionate about the humanities and decided to become a history teacher.
MFF: How was your first year of teaching?
Leslie: I teach at a gifted and talented charter school and have been here since I finished graduate school in 2011. My first year was quite the transition. Not only was it my first year teaching, but I was also new to teaching gifted and talented students.
I learned quickly that these students were going to need more challenge than I was prepared for. I was so lucky to have a great group of educators to help me learn how to do just that. I was teaching seventh and eighth grade social studies plus the yearbook class. I had never taught any of those courses before and was overwhelmed pretty quickly.
At the time our school was very small, with only about 15 teachers. Melissa McCants, now our assistant principal, was also teaching eighth grade then. She coached me through the content and worked on lesson plans with me. I also had an English teacher, Donna Williams, who really challenged me to have students write a lot. She helped teach me how to assess writing and helped me develop lesson plans.
The most influential person for me during this time was probably Marlene Baber, our curriculum coach. Marlene never let me slide on anything and would sit down with me anytime to turn an activity or assessment into something that was so much better than I had started with. She really taught me what it was to be a gifted and talented teacher, and I am so grateful for that.
I had a great group of kids that year. The best thing about teaching in a small school is that the 12-year-olds I taught then were my students throughout high school. I am still in touch with most of them. They are in college now, and I love getting to see how those energetic and curious kids who taught me to be the teacher I am have grown into incredible young adults. I am just so proud of them.
MFF: You have led Palmetto’s participation in National History Day (NHD) projects and events. What does NHD do for your students?
Leslie: We are lucky to have an amazing Social Science department. Lisa Hakamiun brought NHD to our school six years ago. As a department, we have coached students and judged at the state level. In an educational atmosphere that highly values STEM education often at the expense of the humanities, it brings me so much joy to see students who are choosing to give their time and energy to research an area of passion and high interest.
NHD allows students to delve deeply into a historical research issue while asking the ever-important question: Why is it important? This program has taught our students soft skills like interview techniques, self-advocacy and public speaking, all while allowing them to explore something they are excited about. Students are able to work to their strengths to tell a story about something that they enjoy.
Some students have received leadership opportunities in their communities through NHD, as well as learning to network and connect with people. They became community activists as well. NHD gave some students the confidence to see that they could be successful. I also love the NHD national competition because students meet like-minded young people from around the world.
MFF: Who are your role models?
Leslie: I grew up in a small community in Ohio where I went to an excellent school with the same people from kindergarten through 12th grade. I had a lot of great teachers growing up, but a few really stand out in my mind as people who really got me excited about learning, challenged me, and were always there for me.
My elementary school music teacher, Donna Wipfli, taught me not to give up. I have little to no musical talent, but I loved going to music class. She pushed us to challenge ourselves while choosing music that was so much fun that it was easy to relax and just enjoy singing. She was actually the teacher who got me so interested in history because of the music we sang from social movements.
My French teacher, Noreen Hanlon, made class so much fun that I really looked forward to going. She always had very interactive lessons, with songs and stories I still remember to this day.
The teacher who had the most influence on me was my AP Physics and AP Calculus teacher, Dave Larabee. Mr. Larabee wasn’t just an amazing teacher, but also an amazing person who showed us all how to accept ourselves for who we were. He told jokes, made class interactive and interesting, and was always there to help before school. Mr. Larabee was one of the most genuinely kind and intelligent people I have ever met. He passed away in a bicycle accident, and I was devastated—not just because he was a great person, but also because of how many students would never get to have him as their teacher.
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Leslie: I was truly shocked. We had been told our principal was getting an award, so it hadn’t even crossed my mind that it would be anything else. I immediately thought about how helpful $25,000 would be, especially since I have $70,000 in student loans! I also wasn’t sure what to do when they called my name and was in a bit of a haze. People kindly shuffled me around as I absorbed what had happened.
MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?
Leslie: I have such an amazingly supportive school family. Both my former students (alumni) and current students were so excited and were really sweet about congratulating me. A few in particular hung back after the announcement because they didn’t want to go to class until they got to say congratulations in person. They are such wonderful kids and it was so much fun to see them sharing in my joy. After the assembly, the students kept saying that they knew it would be me, and that felt pretty incredible as well. It has been over a week now and the kids are still talking about it. I think it really was big for them too.
We did a neat activity in Economics the next day where we talked about taxation on things like lottery winnings and students tried to calculate how much I could put toward my loans. I then had them come up with two responsible choices and one “just for fun” option for what they would do with the money, to spark a conversation about budgeting. They had a lot of fun deciding what they would do and I was happy to see that most would put the majority toward college expenses.
MFF: How do you think you’ll use your $25,000?
Leslie: I have substantial student loans, so I’m very excited to make a dent in those. I’m also hoping to travel to the Pacific Northwest and Banff National Park this summer with one of my teacher friends.
MFF: What do you hope your students remember from their time with you?
Leslie: I hope my students remember my class as a safe place to learn and have fun. As a social studies teacher, I really hope they remember the importance of being an active member of their community.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Leslie: My success is really tied to my students’ success. If I have done my job well, they will leave me as lifelong learners who find joy and have confidence in reading, debating and discussing. While good test scores are a nice bonus, I don’t think they define a student’s success. Each student will achieve their success in a different way. For some students it’s becoming more confident in their existing strengths. For others it’s gaining new knowledge. For some, success is having the skills to navigate the complexities of adult life.
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