Spotlight: Sarah Szymanski (CO '18)January 28, 2019
Sarah Szymanski (CO ’18) was inspired to become an educator after watching her mother, a sixth-grade teacher, develop lasting relationships: “I realized that as a teacher you can effect change on a daily basis and become a lifelong figure in the lives of your students.” The second-grade teacher won Colorado’s 2018-19 Milken Educator Award at Soaring Eagles Elementary School in Colorado Springs on December 19, 2018.
Milken Family Foundation: We understand that you start each morning with your students by reciting a special mantra.
Sarah Szymanski: I listened to a podcast about two years ago that changed my life. It was about an inner-city high school principal who would go on the announcements each morning and tell the students, “If no one told you that they loved you today, I will.” She would tell them each day that they matter, and they can do their best because she believed in them. I had this epiphany: I realized that many of my kids might not hear during the day that they are loved, that they are good enough, that they can grow, that someone believes in them.
Currently, my class mantra is: “This morning, scholars, you have a fresh start. Today I know you will learn, you will work hard, and you will be the best person that you can be. You are brilliant, you are kind, and you are loved. Think about how you can grow today.” The students then close their eyes and consider how they can grow academically, emotionally, or socially from the day before. It has been exciting to see other teachers develop their own mantras and watch the students internalize them.
Our mantra helps us start each day fresh and on the right foot. It's also become a time where I can talk to the students about how I want to grow each day, and I don't feel like adults do that enough with kids. We need to admit our struggles and our strategies for growth, too.
MFF: What made you decide to teach?
Sarah: I've wanted to teach literally for as long as I can remember. My mom recently retired from teaching sixth grade. It has been so inspiring to watch the relationships that she continues to develop with her students. She worked so hard for her sixth-graders, and now she's attending their weddings and babysitting their children. Watching her, I realized that as a teacher you can effect change on a daily basis and become a lifelong figure in the lives of your students.
MFF: Why elementary school?
Sarah: As primary teachers, we have a responsibility to get students on grade level by the end of second grade. Studies show that students who are significantly behind in third grade are unlikely to catch up—they even face a greater risk of incarceration. Although the pressure is daunting, I find the challenge to get all students on grade level incredibly important.
I like getting to know the ins and outs of all of my tiny people. Where do they excel? Where do they struggle? What kind of reinforcement and re-teaching gets the best response? What social, emotional or family issues could be playing a role?
A lot of the students in my school and district come from families that are doing their best just to get by. Many of my kids' parents are working multiple jobs to pay the bills. They aren't able to be part of their children's lives nearly as much as they'd like to. As their teacher, I can never take the place of a parent, but I can provide some stability, consistency and attention, which can really make a difference. I don't think there's a better feeling than knowing that when you walk into work every day, you have the opportunity to create a long-lasting difference in the life of a child.
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Sarah: As I'm sure most recipients feel, I was completely shocked. I had actually been dealing with insomnia for several days and almost took the day off. When my name was called, I thought there was a genuine possibility that I was having an insomnia-induced daydream! I also remember the names of my coworkers going through my head. I teach with so many phenomenal women, many of whom absolutely deserve such an award.
I feel so grateful that there is someone out there who is generous enough to reward teachers across the country for their hard work. In this profession, recognition and rewards just aren’t common. I'm still wrestling with the multitude of feelings this Award has created. I'm proud, embarrassed, excited, invigorated, uncomfortable, grateful, and about 100 other emotions!
MFF: How did your students respond to your Milken Award?
Sarah: My students were certainly excited, but being second-graders, they tend to forget about things quickly. My former students have been so incredibly kind. The amount of hugs and sweet notes that I've received has been such a great part of celebrating the Award! Even though my students are young, I hope the Award reinforces for them that through hard work, passion, and working through challenges, they can achieve amazing things.
MFF: Who are your role models as an educator?
Sarah: In addition to my mother, one of my biggest influences is my high school English teacher, Mr. Lane. He was young, energetic, brilliant, hilarious, and took the time to plan detailed lessons that really challenged our thinking about literature. Unfortunately, being a teenager, I didn't realize how phenomenal he was at the time! He showed me that being a great teacher doesn't mean doing the status quo, the bare minimum, or “what the other teachers are doing.” Instead, he showed me that when teachers are extremely knowledgeable about their content, develop engaging and relevant lessons, respect and encourage their students, and recognize them for their growth, the students will respond in kind by showing their best.
MFF: Tell us about your first year of teaching.
Sarah: Oh geez, those poor kids! I had no idea what I was doing that first year in Texas. We had no curriculum, and I struggled to create lessons to fill the day and keep up with the subsequent paperwork. I was working at least 12 hours a day every day, and I burned out very quickly. I remember not understanding why my students were misbehaving, because I thought that just being “nice” would be enough for them to be perfectly mannered students.
Things changed when I moved to Colorado the following year and began working at Chamberlin Elementary. My principal was Sheryl Hobbs, and she is still the most poised, brilliant, effective, and knowledgeable administrator I have ever met. She whipped me into shape. She saw potential that needed to be refined. Under her training, I started to develop into the teacher I am today. Without her influence, I honestly don't know if I'd still even be in the teaching profession.
I had the opportunity to teach a very small class (10-12 students) year-round for two years. I was able to learn how incredibly far students can come academically when the instruction is focused and intentional—especially when the class size is so small. Was I crying more than I'd like to admit during that time of my life? Oh yeah. Was I crying my eyes out on the last day of school, trying to say goodbye to those kids? Oh yeah again. It was the best, and the most difficult, time of my life. Without an administrator who was so knowledgeable, passionate, and supportive as well as tough, I never would have made it.
MFF: You mentor student teachers and first-year educators. Why is the mentoring process important for rising educators?
Sarah: I don't think I can make clear how incredibly integral the mentoring process is for new educators. Unfortunately, some veteran teachers feel that getting a student teacher is a right that comes after years of teaching. They see their student teachers as more of an aid that can help with paperwork, make copies and teach lessons for them. I can't tell you how infuriating this is to me. Student teachers have less than a year to prepare, and although you can never fully prepare someone for their first year “solo,” it is the responsibility of veteran teachers to provide as much feedback and help as possible. We need to train our student teachers on the ins and outs of classroom management, relationship-building, navigating academic standards, planning and executing lessons, analyzing data and providing intervention, and so much more. Just like our students, student teachers need a gradual release model in order to feel successful and confident. We need to model excellence as much as possible and provide constant, constructive feedback to help them develop confidence in their skill set.
MFF: How do you think you’ll use your $25,000 Award?
Sarah: My fiancé and I just got engaged in October, and also closed on our first home together, so we have quite a few expenses coming up. It will be so helpful to put some of the money towards home renovations and wedding costs. Although a new hot water heater and a kitchen backsplash may not be too glamorous, it's definitely going to be a weight off our shoulders.
Two of my favorite hobbies are snowboarding and cooking, so I plan on splurging a bit on a new snowboard, some kitchen equipment, and indulging my foodie side with a great dinner out. Also, my friend Blair Brendle, an educator who used to teach in our district, currently runs a school in Malawi, Africa. I'd love to surprise her with a donation to help with the incredible work she is doing in Malawi.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Sarah: Both of my brothers are in sales, and my fiancé is a realtor. For all of them, success is measured by their salary: More sales equates to a bigger paycheck, and a bigger paycheck means you're doing your job more successfully.
In teaching, we measure our success very differently. Success is leaving work each day feeling like a child is better off for being in my class that day. Success is watching the smile on a child's face when they finally understand a new concept or strategy. Success is knowing that I sent my kids to third grade with all the skills they need to be successful. Success is Tyara, Noelia, Hunter, Bentley, and all of my other special former students who come visit me, ready with a big hug. To me, those hugs mean “thank you for what you did for me,” and if that isn't success, I don't know what is!
I constantly tell my students that a test score has nothing to do with success. If they feel like they have grown from the day before, if they have met their challenges head on, and if they treated others with kindness and respect, it was a successful day.
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