Spotlight: Sarah Collins (ME '22)February 21, 2023
Through virtual field trips, Sarah Collins (ME ’22) connects her fourth graders in rural Maine with scientists around the globe: “Hopefully, my students’ eyes are open to the opportunities and pathways that exist in the world.” Sarah received Maine’s Milken Award at Patricia A. Duran School in Hermon on November 1, 2022.
Milken Family Foundation: What do you like about working with elementary students?
Sarah Collins (ME ’22): No two days are the same. I love the energy and enthusiasm our students bring to school each day. Fourth graders are the perfect mix of loving, sweet, and still excited about school. They are also becoming independent in their academic and social skills. I love being able to guide them through this journey of being the oldest in our elementary school and getting them ready for middle school.
MFF: Tell us about your school garden. What kinds of activities do you hold in this outdoor classroom?
Sarah: In the fall of 2020, I applied for an outdoor education grant. I was able to acquire two small raised beds, a worm garden, soil and a composter. A local nursery (Thanks Levant Landscaping!) was generous and donated tomato plants for all the fourth graders. We got our hands in the “dirt” and set up the worm garden as well as plant pepper and tomato plants in the small raised beds. I was over the moon excited when a parent told me the following year that her child was still tending to the tomato plant, and the project had sparked a love of gardening.
MFF: How do your virtual field trips enhance your curriculum and students’ experience?
Sarah: The virtual field trips bring the possibilities of the world to my students. By meeting scientists across the country and parts of the world, they are gaining valuable knowledge of the world outside their small town. Hopefully, my students’ eyes are open to the opportunities and pathways that exist in the world. The sessions with incredible people and places have opened my eyes as well, and I love learning along with my students.
MFF: How did you end up in education?
Sarah: It may be because my mother and grandmother were teachers, but I believe I was destined to be a teacher. As far back as I can remember, my mother read to me, brought me to the library and fostered a love to learn. Also, being an older sister allowed me plenty of opportunities to teach math to my little brother and his neighborhood friends.
As a student, I had a mostly positive experience in school because of many wonderful, caring educators I met on my path. Throughout my journey, as I explored other options in high school, I continued to feel the biggest pull towards becoming an educator. Later in college I coached middle school cheerleading teams. Helping others has always felt natural to me and brought me joy.
MFF: How did your first year of teaching go?
Sarah: It was an eye-opening experience, to say the least. I was hired at a small, rural school in a town I had never been to before. What surprised me most were the immense emotional and behavioral needs of the students in my classroom. Scenarios occurred that I had not read about in a college textbook. I had to learn to manage quickly or I knew I would not last long as a teacher.
Fortunately, I was not alone as I worked through the emotional rollercoaster of being an inexperienced teacher. There were veteran teachers and school staff who supported me and other beginning teachers through that first year in 2008-09: Dorinne Eastman, Vicki Darrah, Cindy Shook, Sharon Gordon, Amy Nichols, Sara Kingsbury, Heather Corbett, Nicole Seeber, Kim Conway, Bethany Miller, Dianne Hawes, Carol Otis, and our principal Richard Fernald. They were all part of our school family that year. I fondly recall working with my roommate and hallway neighbor, third grade teacher Sara Kingsbury, at the school on the weekends. Knowing I was supported and continuously encouraged by others helped me grow and adapt to those ever-changing experiences as a teacher.
MFF: Who are your role models?
Sarah: My first role model as an educator was my mother. I was fortunate to be read to and always loved reading with her. I always enjoyed spending time in her small classroom in a Title 1 school. The impact of her kindness and love of teaching was visible and apparent throughout her interactions with others. This left a lasting impression on me.
One of my favorite teachers was my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Connie Breau in Brewer. I remember her soft voice and gentle demeanor. When I was student of the week, I felt on top of the world.
Ms. Angella Khorll, my junior year English teacher at Bangor High School, is an inspiration to me to this day. She made English class come alive for her students, guiding us to choose books and use our own creativity to interpret the meaning of stories. I was so grateful to be able to bring “The Catcher in the Rye” alive by creating a film adaptation (starring my little brother and his neighborhood friends) rather than writing a traditional essay. Through my senior year, college, and my teaching career Ms. Khorll has enthusiastically encouraged and inspired me along the way.
Mrs. Rhonda Geaghan, my student teaching mentor in the Brewer School District, convinced me fourth grade was the sweet spot! From the moment I met Rhonda — I worked at her husband’s restaurant when I was in college, and she discovered I needed a teaching placement — she welcomed me with open arms. As soon as I entered her classroom, I realized Rhonda brought learning alive for her students. Whether it was measuring the actual size of the Mayflower on the playground asphalt or raising funds to shop for Christmas presents for local children, she inspired me to ensure learning went beyond a textbook for my students. From the beginning of my career to now, I often ask myself: “What would Rhonda do?”
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Sarah: As soon as I entered the gym I knew something big was about to happen. I quickly realized our school or someone was receiving an award. I immediately thought of multiple people in the room who deserved recognition for their efforts in the classroom and our community. I am surrounded by incredibly hardworking educators and administrators. Our wonderful principal Melissa Davis introduced Maine Education Commissioner Pender Makin (Milken ’01) and later Stephanie Bishop, who explained the actual reason for the assembly.
The moment I heard my name called as the recipient of the Milken Award, I honestly could not believe it. I am not typically comfortable in the spotlight and was hesitant to walk to the front of the gym. I stopped for a quick breath with fellow fourth grade teacher Ricala Hafford, then found myself moving forward. Before I knew it, assistant principal Kathryn Goodman brought my daughter Grayce to me and we walked to the podium. I immediately wondered how I could have been nominated and chosen for such a prestigious award! When I heard Stephanie recognize my classroom work and beyond, I was surprised others had learned of what I had worked hard to bring to my students over the years.
There were many smiling faces and eager handshakes. I could not believe so many people took the time out of their busy lives to come to the ceremony. What an incredible honor I will truly cherish for the rest of my life.
MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?
Sarah: The students in our school have been so sweet and supportive. The buzz of the Award continues to this day, as random students will ask me in the hallway what I will do with the money. My homeroom and co-teacher’s students have been especially enthusiastic. I feel proud to be their teacher and they seem to appreciate me more knowing that not only do I care about them, but I also want to be the best teacher for them. When I share my own learning journey with them and ways I want to incorporate new ideas in the classroom, they seem to understand that their education is a lifelong experience that goes beyond textbooks and classroom walls.
MFF: Any plans for your $25,000?
Sarah: My husband and I would like to take our daughter to Disney World, or possibly Ireland or Australia.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Sarah: I define success for myself as the realization of having persevered through challenges in life. Over the last 15 years of teaching, I have needed to adapt as a teacher to the needs of my students. At times, I observe students’ desire for instant gratification or success. I try to remind them it is normal to struggle with new concepts and for the learning journey to take time. When I tell them about the concepts I had difficulty with as a student, I think it puts some of them at ease. It is okay not to be perfect and to admit our struggles. My hope is that students define their own success and they feel supported.
MFF: What do you hope students remember from their time with you?
Sarah: I hope they feel cared for and encouraged when they are with me. I realize none will remember every lesson I taught them. But I hope they recall having fun together in our classroom, and that they were treated with kindness.
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Sarah Collins is a most deserving recipient of the Milken Educator Award. I believe her students' energy and enthusiasm for learning is a direct reflection of what they see in their teacher. The first time I met Sarah I was impressed with her genuine love of learning and her desire to share that love with others. She is an inspiration and a credit to the teaching profession.
Posted by Patricia A. Duran, 23/02/2023 12:09pm (27 days ago)