Spotlight: Sarah Compton (WI '18)March 11, 2019
Sarah Compton (WI ’18) values the weekly professional development time she and her colleagues have built into their schedules: “I walk away feeling that I can immediately improve my classroom instruction as a result.” The fifth-grade teacher at Monroe’s Northside Elementary won Wisconsin’s 2018-19 Milken Educator Award on February 22, 2019.
MFF: What brought you to teaching?
Sarah: I can trace my decision to become a teacher back to third grade. We were an overflow classroom, housed in a trailer in the school parking lot. The circumstances sound less than ideal, but my teacher, Mrs. Taylor, made that trailer feel like a tight-knit community of our own. As I sat and watched Mrs. Taylor teach, I remember thinking that I was going to do that one day. I was going to make a classroom feel like home, full of laughter and learning.
From there, I progressed through the years holding onto that career goal. In middle school I became a peer tutor. By ninth grade I was teaching Sunday School at my church. In high school I took career classes in child development and early education. I joined debate and forensics to improve my public speaking abilities. Over summers, I worked as a camp counselor to elementary-age children.
Every experience further solidified my desire to teach. Honestly, I never wavered. It’s hard to define the factors that influenced me, except to say that I felt the calling early in life. I loved learning myself, and I’ve always been drawn to working with children. I had some phenomenal teachers who served as role models and mentors along the way. Teaching is more than a job; it’s my passion.
MFF: What do you like about teaching elementary students?
Sarah: I love elementary school because I get a chance to influence students’ initial views toward education. I help lay the foundation for their entire educational careers. Moreover, I appreciate being able to spend the majority of my school day with the same students. I feel I can develop deeper relationships and make a conscious effort to connect with every student daily. Being together strengthens our classroom community. I also find that elementary students have a contagious amount of enthusiasm and a natural love of learning. I can capitalize on that and see a tremendous amount of growth in a short time.
One of my favorite things to do at the end of the year is pull out students’ work from September. It’s initially a rare moment of complete quiet, as kids dig through their portfolios and remember where they used to be. Then the room erupts in laughter (“I can’t believe I didn’t even know how write a thesis statement!”) and a sense of amazement (“Did I really improve this much in less than a year?”). It is so gratifying to be able to teach students that they are capable of great growth and achievement. I want them walking tall into middle school, feeling confident in their identities as learners.
MFF: We’ve heard about your financial literacy unit. Other than practicing math skills, what do you want students to take away?
Sarah: I want my students to have an awareness of the real-world applications of their math coursework. It’s never too early for students to begin understanding that their decisions (financial and otherwise) can have long-term implications for the future. I want them to think critically as consumers of products and ideas. I hope that by introducing these concepts early, I can lay the foundation for them to be responsible teenagers and adults. After all, they are going to enter adulthood, in only seven to eight years, with a clean slate. In my classroom, they can make mistakes and learn from them without any negative repercussions.
MFF: You spend a lot of time on professional development and teacher education for your colleagues. How does this role fit with your work in the classroom?
Sarah: Our district really emphasizes collaboration and the vast majority of professional development is done “in house.” Over my career, I have learned so much from the combined knowledge and wisdom of my fellow educators. I love being in a position now that I can give back.
I’ve had the opportunity to mentor new teachers and university students in my classroom. I’m currently part of a task force aimed at promoting learning walks within our building. I’ve led or co-led professional development sessions on Responsive Classroom, curriculum compacting, best practice in mathematics, RTI in the classroom, and Webb’s Depths of Knowledge model.
We are incredibly fortunate to have building-wide professional development time built into our weekly schedule. This time is not for making copies or grading papers. It’s set aside for us to build our collective efficacy and assure our students are receiving a rigorous, vertically-aligned curriculum rooted in best practices. Whether we spend the time analyzing student work samples, planning strategy groups or sharing ideas for lesson delivery, I walk away feeling that I can immediately improve my classroom instruction as a result. Teaching is truly a team endeavor, and I appreciate the fact I can contribute to our collective professional growth.
MFF: Who are your role models?
Sarah: Randy Ninmer, my former classroom neighbor, first-year mentor and fifth-grade colleague. Randy’s guidance, especially as I was navigating my first few years of teaching, was invaluable. I got many opportunities to observe his teaching style. His calm demeanor, sense of humor and passion for the subject area really resonated with students.
Randy’s defining characteristic, however, was his adaptability and openness to change. Having had over 30 years in education, Randy had seen many initiatives come and go. In his time, educational theory had changed, new curriculum was adopted (then abandoned), and district leadership had changed multiple times. Never once did Randy complain or grumble or resist the idea of trying something new. He never got stuck in his ways, and instead kept an open mind as new mandates were enacted and new requirements were added to our list of professional responsibilities.
To his great credit, Randy was also open to changes I brought to our grade-level team. It would’ve been easy for him to tell me that my ideas had already been tried or list reasons why they wouldn’t work. Instead, Randy would roll up his sleeves and ask how we could make it happen. He gave me room to grow instead of instructing me on how things were done. He had faith in me and my abilities, despite the huge gap in experience, and his unwavering support gave me the courage to bring my ideas to a larger audience.
MFF: Tell us about your first year of teaching.
Sarah: My first year of teaching was a wonderful blur. I have never been so nervous as I was stepping into my classroom on the very first day of school. I calmed myself by thinking that I would never have to go through another “first day” again!
I had a larger than average class size: 28 fifth-graders. I felt like I was trying to find my footing while scaling a mountain. I had so much to learn: course content, available resources, behavioral management, building relationships with families, and professionalism in education. I often stayed at school past dark, then packed up my bag and brought more work home with me. Still, the kids made every day a joy. You always have fond memories of your first group, and this group was exceptional.
One memory that stands out clearly was the last day of school. We were having a fifth-grade kickball tournament. My class was joined by four students that were generally in adaptive physical education; they had never really played kickball. All four students attempted to participate in the game but were struggling with kicking and catching. A couple were having difficulty remembering the rules. I feared what most teachers would, which was that my ultra-competitive fifth graders would start to get frustrated and exclude these students from what was meant to be a fun game.
But the exact opposite happened. My class began cheering for these students whenever they were up to the plate. They patiently reminded them of the rules, gave plenty of high-fives and offered words of encouragement. When the game was almost over, my class was losing horribly. One of these students came up to the plate. He made contact with the ball, the first time all afternoon, and the roar was deafening! My students screamed and clapped, and the other team fumbled the ball a few times, allowing this student to make a home run. His face shone! I’ll never forget the collective acts of kindness I witnessed that day.
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Sarah: As the big secret was being unveiled, I had a list of possible names running through my head. We have exceptional educators in our building, so I honestly did not consider that I might be the recipient until the second I heard my name announced. I was shocked, and from there, it was a rush of adrenaline. Standing in front of my students and colleagues, I felt an overwhelming sense of pride and appreciation. I’m so lucky to be a teacher and so grateful for this recognition.
MFF: How did your students respond to your Milken Award?
Sarah: My students were absolutely thrilled. I have many students who are thinking about careers in education. I really think this underscores the fact that teaching is an amazingly rewarding career path. You get to touch the lives of so many people, and your influence is unending.
I promised my students on the first day of school that I would always strive to do better and be better. I shared how they would benefit from my own evolution as an educator. Each year my lesson plans improve; each year I adapt to incorporate new ideas and techniques. When I won the Award, they could see evidence of me making good on that promise. I hope they remember to always keep growing and reaching for new goals. I hope they will follow their own passions.
MFF: How do you think you’ll use your $25,000 Award?
Sarah: I think we’ll put most of it into a college fund for my 3-year old twins. It seems fitting to reinvest the money into education. There’s also been some discussion about using this money to fund my pursuit of National Board Certification.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Sarah: Success is about persevering and growing. Unfortunately, many perceive success as having a defined end point, or as an ultimate goal to be achieved. I promised at my first job interview that I would not remain stagnant or complacent. I would grow and evolve; I would better myself at every opportunity. I want my students to be driven, pushing themselves beyond what they considered possible. I want them to understand that success is not about fame or fortune, but instead about feeling you’ve accomplished something worth doing.
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