If there’s ever been a time to celebrate teachers, it’s now. Parents struggling to get kids to pay attention to online school see firsthand how important teachers are in the life of a child. And the thousands of teachers who have kept kids learning and engaged through a global pandemic and entirely new “classroom” structures and teaching methods deserve a medal!
As most of Arizona’s teachers were working to reach kids through a computer screen, Sara Wyffels became Arizona’s 2021 Teacher of the Year. The Chandler High School Spanish teacher grew up in a Seattle suburb, studied Spanish at Western Washington University and earned a master of arts in teaching from the University of Portland.
We caught up with her just before winter break, and found teaching for Chandler Online Academy hasn’t diminished her love for the job. Overall, she thinks all students have learned new online skills and responsibility that will benefit them forever, and has found a silver lining in new technology that helps enhance learning.
Here’s what else Wyffels has been thinking about as she embarks (if the pandemic allows) on a year of speeches, events and appearances across the state.
Has there ever been a more difficult year for teachers than 2020? How are you coping?
This is true. What has been most disheartening is seeing educators left out of decisions that directly affect our classrooms, our work and our lives. I focus on what I can control or change and on using my voice.
What’s been the biggest challenge of virtual classes? Have you found any silver lining?
I am teaching for Chandler Online Academy, so I am teaching completely remotely. The biggest challenge is that there have been students I haven’t been able to reach at all. My silver lining is the technology. There are pieces that have enhanced teaching and learning that I will hang on to forever!
What can you tell parents and teachers who are feeling burned out with virtual classes?
Find ways to make human connections. Come together with other parents and teachers who are in the same boat, share and support each other in this way. Together, we can creatively problem solve.
Some kids have not thrived online, even as teachers went above and beyond to keep students learning and engaged. Are you worried about a loss of learning on a larger scale, or do you think overall students learned new skills, and that they’ll be OK?
Personally, I do not view the scenario this year as a loss of learning at all, but as a loss of opportunities. There is learning from this year that will benefit our students for the rest of their lives. My third-grader and fifth-grader have learned more responsibility this year than any other.
The Arizona Educational Foundation says “Everyone’s story includes a teacher.” Who was the most influential teacher in your life?
My junior high teachers were the most impactful in my life. I always felt challenged by them, but simultaneously I was accepted for who I was, and I was encouraged to be myself.
What made you want to be a teacher?
I decided that I wanted to share the power of human connections with younger people, because I believe that we can do better. We can use language to understand one another and foster a more peaceful and empathetic world.
Studying abroad in college had a big impact on you. What was that experience like?
I wish every student could have a study abroad experience. I lived with a family and took college courses in Segovia, Spain. I learned that humans all want similar things: safety and love. It was also my first experience understanding how people from the United States are viewed in the world. It was a mirror to my identity and my humanity; it will always be one of the best times of my life.
What’s been your proudest moment as an educator?
Achieving my National Board Certification is a professional landmark for me. It solidified my identity as an expert in my profession, and the process is continuous and reflective, which is what I believe teaching should be always!
What’s been your biggest challenge as a teacher?
Having people who have never done your job make decisions, policies and mandates about how it should be done. I look forward to working with our community to include teachers as decision makers in school districts.
What are the biggest challenges for Arizona educators right now?
The teacher shortage is very concerning to me. I am worried about the toll it takes on existing teachers and the effect it will have on our students. We need to work with our state government to improve teacher salaries [and] professional development opportunities and increase funding to public education.
What would you tell a college student who is interested in becoming a teacher, but worried about things like pay and workload?
We need you amazing young people in our profession! For us to sustain this work, we have to prepare for advocacy work, be reflective, and draw boundaries and hold to them. Those of us who are veterans have a responsibility to mentor our young teachers.
What’s your main message as you travel (hopefully this year!) in your Teacher of the Year role?
Let’s leave “normal” behind us. “Normal” was not working for all students; we can do better than “normal.” Let’s look at our educational systems, bring stakeholders together with educators and equity at the center, and make some different decisions about how we proceed forward and renew systems to be more equitable and inclusive for all students.
You’ve taught Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes. Can you explain what the IB program is all about?
I love IB, because the learning is circular and connected. It is based on the idea that we are global citizens, and that we are responsible for reflecting on our own humanity while learning about ideas and places that are not our own, thus creating a more understanding world.
Anything you’d like to add?
I would just like to add that if you do not know more than one language, I encourage you to think about learning one. It is good for your brain, and it benefits our society as a whole, because it not only gives us opportunities to share more with others, it gives us more opportunities to listen to others.