Welcome new Iowa Teacher of the Year Sara Russell
To say that Iowa’s 2022 Teacher of the Year Sara Russell is eager to start her tenure today would be an understatement.
“I’m most excited to meet educators across the state and to celebrate all the amazing learning happening in Iowa classrooms,” said Russell, a high school social studies teacher from Pleasant Valley Community School District.
But she’s coming with an agenda, albeit a benevolent one.
“I have a three-pronged message that I will be promoting: Courage, compassion and collaboration,” she said.
The courage component focuses on becoming comfortable in taking chances in the classroom, both as an educator and a student.
“We grow intellectually when we try new things,” Russell said. “That goes for both educators and students. People are more encouraged to try new things if you take the risk of failure out of the equation. Of course, when I say failure, I’m not saying failing a course.
“But when we try new things and are successful, that’s when wonderful things happen.”
As for compassion, Russell said, “it’s really rooted in our social-emotional learning. We are not just educating students intellectually but educating the student as a whole.
“For instance, we have gone through this shared trauma with the pandemic, and that brought out a lot of emotion from everyone. It’s important that we recognize that students struggle socially and emotionally.”
But it doesn’t stop with the student, Russell said.
“We have to recognize that educators also can struggle socially and emotionally,” she said. “That’s why it is so important that we take care of ourselves so that we can help the students.”
And finally, collaboration should be an integral part of educator planning and classroom activities, Russell said.
“From an educator standpoint, it’s important to work in our professional learning communities,” she said. “That has been instrumental in my growth as an educator. When I first started teaching, we were all islands and making do with what we had. Today we work as a community.”
And collaboration should also be a part of a student’s education, she said.
“There’s got to be collaboration between educator and student,” Russell said. “ It’s not us versus them. It’s important to think of students as stakeholders because they are. In my classroom, I am a big proponent of students working in groups. Of course I push the students individually, but in small groups, students are more willing to speak up and share their ideas. The students learn how to work together. They learn about each other and how their differences make them stronger.”
Though July 1 is Russell’s first day on the Teacher of the Year job, she’s already been active on the national front. In April, she traveled to Washington, D.C., where she met all the country’s other Teachers of the Year.
“I met some incredible educators there,” she said. “I am already collaborating with a few of them on some great ideas.”
And later this month, she’s headed to Huntsville, Ala., for a space camp.
“I’m 43 and I am going to jump into some antigravity simulator,” Russell said. “That is just beyond my comprehension at this point.”
But most important, in her mind, is her eagerness to get out across the state and meet other educators.
“I’m really excited to dig in and meet educators,” she said. “I can’t wait. What an incredible opportunity this is. It is a huge honor. And I’m so pleased Iowa takes its Teacher of the Year program so seriously.”
The Iowa Teacher of the Year award was established in 1958. The annual program is sponsored by the Iowa Department of Education through an appropriation from the Iowa Legislature. Honorees serve as ambassadors to education and act as liaisons to schools, higher education, and organizations across the state.