Spotlight: Sara King (HI '18)March 13, 2019
Sara King (HI ’18) shares with students her holistic, whole-child view of success: “It’s about who you are as a human being and what kind of impact you make on our world and others.” The Title I coordinator at Honolulu’s Ala Wai Elementary won Hawaii’s Milken Educator Award on February 4, 2019.
Milken Family Foundation: You recently left the classroom to become Ala Wai’s Title I coordinator. What does that role entail?
Sara King: Leaving the classroom was one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make. I had this perception that I would be stuck behind a desk all day doing Title I paperwork. So when I accepted the position I made sure that I would still have contact with students on a daily basis. As at any other school, you are never just one thing. We all wear many hats.
A major part of my job is taking care of the Title I paperwork and making sure we are in compliance. I help organize and plan quarterly parent involvement activities surrounding ELA, math and science. Also, I collect data and make it visible for our teachers. This helps them make informed decisions when it comes to their instruction.
I work with small groups of children from each class on literacy skills, with help from our EL coordinator and our part-time teachers. This is probably my favorite part of the day because I am teaching and doing what I love. I am also one of our “lighthouse” coordinators, helping to oversee the implementation of the Leader In Me framework. I help with our student lighthouse, a group of students who voice what they would like to see done at our school. I also coach our Special Olympics teams for basketball and softball.
MFF: How did you land in education?
Sara: I’ve wanted to be an educator for as long as I can remember. I was the kid who loved to stay in from recess to help my teachers. I would often dream about the day I would have my own classroom. There really wasn’t ever a question on what I would do or major in when I graduated from high school. Teaching is a very hard occupation, but it is rewarding in so many ways. I truly feel blessed to being doing this work and getting to play a role in so many children’s lives.
MFF: Why did you choose elementary school?
Sara: I love working with young children. As elementary teachers, we have to ensure that we help build the foundation for their learning. We are also responsible for developing independent thinkers and learners. I love seeing my students grow and evolve through their K-5 experience. It is amazing to think that I played a small hand in their development and growth.
MFF: Tell us about your first year of teaching.
Sara: My first year of teaching was all about surviving. I began my first year in the middle of the first quarter, so I received children from four other first-grade classes. I had to set up my own routines and structures within the classroom and help students transition to a new environment. I also had to help parents with the transition—they were a bit hesitant about having their children in a first-year teacher’s classroom. I constantly felt like I had to prove myself.
If it wasn’t for the help of my first-grade team, I honestly do not think I would have survived. My team was amazing. They helped me set up my classroom and plan curriculum, gave me resources, and let me cry on their shoulders. I knew I had a support system and they were not going to let me fail.
My first year was one of the toughest years for me. I am naturally really hard on myself, so I constantly felt like I was failing my students. I felt like I didn’t have a life outside of school. I was always thinking about school and making sure I was doing my best. Whenever I reflect on my first year, I always say I feel bad for those students because I wish they could have had the teacher I am today. I have learned so much over the years—I have a lot more to offer now.
MFF: It’s unusual to see first-graders steeped in project-based learning. Why has this become such a big part of your school’s instructional toolbox?
Sara: We’ve seen the impact it has on our students. When students take ownership of their learning, they not only absorb the content but also learn to be critical thinkers and problem-solvers.
I’ll admit that when we were first introduced to this way of teaching, I was a little hesitant. It requires teachers to really take a back seat and let their students take the lead. I was nervous that first-graders would have a hard time with the whole process. But I was wrong. When my first-graders were able to choose the topic they wanted to explore, they were much more engaged and invested in what we were learning. Project-based learning makes students leaders in their own education. Whenever I see students involved in this type of learning, I see them grow immensely.
MFF: Who are your role models?
Sara: The most influential role model in my life is my mom. She was my first educator and a big reason I chose to be a teacher. My mother is probably the most kind and patient woman you will ever meet. She took the time to work with my three siblings and me, helping us with our school work and instilling the importance of education. I definitely got my strong work ethic from my mom.
One of my favorite teachers was my high school art teacher, Mr. Meier. He took the time to get to know me and made me feel comfortable in his class. I had just moved to a new school and didn’t have any friends. I was extremely shy so it was hard for me to make friends at a new school. Mr. Meier showed me what a difference teachers can make by simply getting to know their students. He made it possible for me to get to know others in my class. I eventually began to come out of my shell and make new friends with his help.
MFF: What went through your mind at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Sara: When I heard my name, I was completely surprised. There are so many amazing teachers at our school that it really could have been any of us. I was convinced it was going to be someone else, so hearing my name completely shocked me. I felt overwhelmed—I am not used to being the center of attention. When I look back on that day, it was all a blur. I remember feeling so honored and blessed to have been given such a prestigious award. I will always be grateful for this opportunity because it has already changed my life in a lot of ways.
MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?
Sara: The students of Ala Wai were so sweet and kind. In the days and weeks following the notification, students were giving me hugs, wishing me well and celebrating with me. Past students and parents expressed their congratulations and let me know why they thought I deserved the Award. It was so nice to have their support and love.
MFF: How do you think you’ll use your $25,000 Award?
Sara: We’ve recently welcomed our second child, so we have been looking for a bigger car to fit the whole family (including our two big fur babies). The Award will definitely help with this.
I am married to a financial professional, so I’m sure my husband would advise me to save or invest some of it towards retirement or our children’s education. I would also like to give some of it back to the school to help grow a program that I am passionate about. I'm still trying to figure out what that would be.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Sara: Success for me is when I see students enjoy learning. No matter what I am teaching, I just want students to have an engaging experience and leave my room with a smile on their face. When students tell me, “That was fun!” or “Can we do this again next time?” I know I have achieved my goal.
Success for students seeing the light bulb go off when they finally understand something, the pride they get when they complete something they worked hard on, and the lasting relationships they build within our school. All of these are signs of success. Students need to know that success is about who you are as a human being and what kind of impact you make on our world and others. We strive to make sure students understand that they have powerful voices that make a difference in our world.
Don’t miss any new articles and updates from Milken Educator Awards: