Spotlight: Ryan Sykes (VA '19)December 13, 2019
A traumatic childhood helped assistant principal Ryan Sykes (VA ’19) develop survival skills and empathy that have propelled him to success as an educator. He won Virginia’s 2019-20 Milken Award at Carter G. Woodson Middle School in Hopewell on November 6, 2019.
Milken Family Foundation: What made you decide to teach?
Ryan Sykes (VA ’19): My brother told me that if I became a teacher, I would never want for a job and I would always be able to take care of myself. I almost didn’t get to teach; I failed the Praxis exam multiple times to get my teacher’s license. But I persevered and prepared. After failing it five times, when I got the opportunity to take the test again, I was ready. I passed and graduated from Virginia State University in 2011.
Once I started teaching, it was about more than taking care of myself. Teaching became an opportunity for me to help students #MakeItPOP (Perseverance + Opportunity + Preparation = Success). I am truly honored to have the opportunity to help underprivileged students “make it” through education like I did. I feel like I am anointed to care because of the traumatic experiences I survived as an adolescent. Those experiences allowed me to develop and display a certain level of empathy that is simply unmatched.
MFF: Improving middle school math outcomes is a tall order, but you’ve done it in just a few years. What programs or initiatives have helped the most?
Ryan: The implementation of common planning and Professional Learning Communities (PLC) had a tremendous impact on how our teachers approach instruction. During our PLCs, teachers bring in classroom data, summative and formative assessments to find trends and areas of improvement as a team. This is a great opportunity for novices to learn instructional strategies from veteran teachers.
The math department at Carter G. Woodson Middle took the curriculum from Virginia Department of Education and developed their own curriculum aligned with the standards. I believe this allowed our teachers to truly understand what they are teaching. Our common planning every Wednesday as a grade level aids the success because of all the ideas the teachers bring to the table.
MFF: What do you like about working with middle school students?
Ryan: I love the unfiltered honesty of middle school students. That age group, 11 to 13, is very unpredictable and keeps me on my toes. I get bored easily, but there is never a dull moment working with middle school students.
MFF: We hear you spent a whole day in a leotard and tights to fulfill a promise to students.
Ryan: My first year as an assistant principal, my seventh graders asked me whether I would wear a “Frozone” costume (from the animated movie “The Incredibles”) if they raised money to buy it. I said yes. I’m always visible and move around the building quickly, and I look like the character. The last day of school, I kept my promise. From that day on I’ve been called “Frozone,” even by students I don’t know.
MFF: Who are your role models?
Ryan: My wife is a fifth grade teacher and she puts in a lot of hours to impact her students. I admire how hard she works. My mom (not biological) Rita Viola has been supporting me since I was 17 years old, when my parents were out of the picture. She is a seventh grade history teacher in Chesapeake, at Crestwood Middle School. My first co-teaching experience was with Mrs. Ann Huffman. I learned a lot from her and her classroom management style—in particular, that one of the most important things you can give students is a consistent attitude.
MFF: Tell us about your first year of teaching.
Ryan: I was in Chesapeake Public Schools, and I struggled with the co-teaching model at Indian River Middle School. I had to co-teach with three different teachers, all with vastly different teaching styles. The teacher who was assigned as my mentor seemed like she didn’t want me in her classroom and it felt like I had no one to talk to. What helped me through that year was my upbringing and the perseverance I developed as a kid.
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Ryan: My primary focus was ensuring my sixth grade students didn’t embarrass me in front of the principal, district superintendent, state superintendent and First Lady. I had no idea the assembly was for me. I have never been that surprised. I’m still in awe. Right before they announced the winner, I was thinking about the teachers I serve who deserved this Award. I did not expect to be the winner.
When they gave me the microphone, I did not know what to say because I was so caught off guard. When I said, “This doesn’t happen to people where I’m from,” I meant people who grow up in poverty, jumping from school to school, living in a household where education is not important and drugs, violence and traumatic experiences reign supreme.
MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?
Ryan: My students were super excited when they heard my name called. They were just as surprised as I was. The next day, multiple students congratulated me and asked me, “Mr. Sykes, what are you going to do with the money?” and “What are you going to buy me?” Some of my former students who have moved on to high school got word and congratulated me. I am forever grateful.
MFF: How do you think you will use the $25,000?
Ryan: I think I will use the money to pay off some bills and take my wife on a nice vacation that’s well deserved. I also see an opportunity to use this money to buy some assets.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Ryan: I believe that success is persevering through the inevitable obstacles that life will throw at you and making the most of your opportunities by being committed to preparation.
MFF: What do you hope your students carry with them from their time with you?
Ryan: I hope my students recognize that I really care about them and I always have their best interests at heart. I want my students to understand that you can fail your way to success and that not trying will never get you to where you want to be. I want my students to remember that anything worth having will not come easily. I want my students to carry with them that if I can make it without parents, experiencing traumatic events, they can make it too.
I want them to remember that perseverance, opportunity and preparation will bring success regardless of the situation. I want them to remember that a huge part of success for underprivileged students is to use the positive resources around them, when they come around. It is imperative that they persevere and prepare to make the most of their opportunities (#MakeItPOP).
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