Spotlight: Deborah Siebern-Dennis (MO '15)March 3, 2016
What would Deborah Siebern-Dennis (MO '15) do if someone dropped a million dollars in her lap? Expand her school's on-site food pantry to meet students' nutritional needs, equip classrooms with the materials teachers want but can't afford under the current budget, and fund more extracurricular activities: "I'd like to see every child at my school involved in something." She received her Milken Educator Award at Bode Middle School in St. Joseph on February 11, 2016.
Milken Family Foundation: How did you end up in education?
Deborah Siebern-Dennis: I always had a passion for science and I knew that I wanted to explore that further in my studies at college. I grew up with a mother who was both a teacher and a middle school coach, which got me interested in working with young adolescents. There have been many great moments that guided me towards a teaching career, but the "aha" moment occurred when I was involved in the Greater Kansas City Public Achievement Program. Being a part of that program allowed me to get involved with students to help them grow both academically and socially.
MFF: What was your first job?
Deborah: Working as a referee and scorekeeper for the Summer Spike volleyball program for the InterServ Foundation. Working with the Summer Spike program allowed me to develop skills with decision-making, active listening, social perceptiveness, time management, and the monitoring and assessing of my own performance along with both the individual and the team. I believe that all of those skills are components to being an effective teacher and I do my best to bring all of those skills with me to my classroom every day.
MFF: Who was your own most memorable teacher?
Deborah: I've experienced many outstanding educators, but one of the most memorable was Dr. Steven Greiert. His passion for teaching was evident every single day, when he would greet every student with a warm smile and engaging lesson. History was always a challenging subject for me, but Dr. Greiert would always provide reflective feedback on assignments and encourage his students to make their work meaningful. Dr. Greiert made connections with each student and made learning exciting.
MFF: Tell us about your first class.
Deborah: My first year I taught for the Clark County School District in Las Vegas, Nevada. One of the memorable moments from my first year occurred during the end-of-year recognition ceremony. Each teacher was allowed to select a star student who demonstrated both strong academics and citizenship. I'll never forget the conversation I had with the father of the student I selected and what he said right in front of his child. The father asked me what made his son a star student — he couldn't understand why his child was selected. I remember seeing the disappointment on his child's face from the lack of parental support as soon as his father questioned my decision. I will also never forget the look on his son's face when I explained why I had chosen him and how much I enjoyed having him in my classroom.
As teachers, we are well aware of the impact words can have on our students and the vital role positivity plays in the classroom. It wasn't until I had that conversation during my first year of teaching that I realized just how important it is to encourage my students every chance I get — because we never know what type of support each child receives at home.
The hardest part about my first year of teaching was learning how to balance all of the responsibilities throughout the school day. Although meeting the needs of my students always remained my top priority, I had to make sure I was giving full effort towards my department responsibilities, grade level meetings, lesson planning, IEP modifications, etc. Being a teacher is a very demanding job, but a rewarding one, where you have to learn to manage your time to complete all of your many responsibilities.
MFF: A student is thinking about a career in education. What do you say?
Deborah: I would first ask if he/she has a passion to reach students. If yes, then I would ask him/her if they enjoy their content area and if they have a drive to learn. Teaching has many facets and if someone has the desire to make an impact then I would highly encourage that person to pursue a career in education.
MFF: What impact do you think your Milken Educator Award presentation had on students at your school?
Deborah: I think the Milken Educator Award presentation has made a positive impact on all my students. Almost every day I get questions about the presentation, which gives me the opportunity to discuss the benefits of teaching with my students in hopes that they might consider a career in education. I have also had former students reach out to me and ask me questions about the Milken Educator Award.
MFF: What's your favorite time of the school day?
Deborah: The beginning of each class period when we participate in "good things." During that time, my students share positive events (i.e. winning a basketball game, stories about pets, talk about a new book, etc.) with the entire class. This time allows me to get to know my students and helps create a trusting learning environment within my classroom.
MFF: If someone gave you a million dollars for your school, what would you do with it?
Deborah: I would first meet with our school counselor and see how we could expand our Campus Cupboard program, a food pantry on school grounds that allows students and families to have access to nutritious food. Many of our students struggle with hunger. I would use that money to help meet the nutritional needs of every student.
Next I would meet with both our core and exploratory teachers to discuss their classroom needs. I know that teachers have exciting ideas to implement into their lessons but often come up against budget limitations. That money would help remove those limitations and allow creativity to flourish.
I would give money to all of our extracurricular programs in hopes of getting more students involved. Whether it is buying new uniforms for every sports team or getting new materials for our drama club, I would like to see every child at my school involved in something.
I would meet with our librarian and see how we could use the money to remodel our library to support literacy in our middle school and create spaces that promote reading.
I would like to construct an outdoor classroom for science learning and other content areas. My curriculum focuses primarily on life science and I would love to have a place where my students could perform their experiments by investigating the outside world.
Finally, I would meet with my principal and discuss any additional needs for our school. I would use the rest of the money to make all the necessary updates to help create a positive learning environment for every student.
MFF: When you retire, what do you want your former students and colleagues to say about you?
Deborah: I would hope that they would mention how I demonstrated enthusiasm with my teaching in hopes of seeing every student succeed. I would like my former students to mention that I helped them develop a desire to become lifelong learners. I would hope that my former students would share stories about how they enjoyed my class and having me as a science teacher.
MFF: If you hadn't chosen a career in education, what would you be doing right now?
Deborah: I'd probably be working in the veterinary field or pharmacy.
MFF: Finish this sentence: "I know I'm succeeding as an educator when..."
Deborah: "...I see students develop an interest in science and a passion for learning."
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