The following interview was conducted and written by Amy Gutierrez Baker, an educator at West Jefferson Middle School in Colorado and NCTE Middle Level Section Steering Committee member.
In the field of education, it is easy to become overwhelmed or disillusioned. With changes in standards, lack of funding, an increase in workload, and the “well—you get the summer off” responses, teaching can seem daunting and impossible. However, teachers like Sandra show that not only is it possible, it’s possible to do it with panache. The winner of the 2015 Outstanding Middle Level Educator in the English Language Arts Award is Sandra Kowalczyk.
Sandra has a passion for teaching and learning that is evident in all she does. Her travels around the world open windows for her and for her students. Most recently, Sandra was a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Scholar in Istanbul, Turkey. Over the years, she has studied, researched, and traveled in 60 countries on five continents. The international experiences help to ignite her teaching back in the classroom. It is through her travels that she helps to, “build cross-curricular connections for my students through their interactions with artifacts, , resources, and ideas garnered from my global travel.”
How did this incredible work begin? Sandra says, “I have always been curious by nature and loved learning. Since my earliest years of teaching I sought out creative people in our community [that] my students and I could learn from. … I invited them to share their passions, including ostrich farming, folk and classical dancing, creating music, designing textiles, crafting whirligigs, dog training, master gardening, raising quail chicks, designing theater stage sets, culinary arts, etc. Imagine maneuvering three 12-foot-long handmade wooden canoes through a standard-sized classroom door, as one presenter managed to do!”
All great teachers have had mentors who helped them along the way. Sandra, who started as a teacher in a rural school where she was the department, sought out collegial opportunities. She says she “was fortunate to have a creative teaching colleague across the hall who shared my philosophy of teaching and learning through the arts. We had such fun brainstorming and collaborating. It seemed every waking moment was devoted to devising innovative ways to engage students; admittedly, it even consumed our dreams. Together we became involved in NCTE and our base of support broadened exponentially.” Seeking out mentors close to home and through the broader NCTE network has helped support Sandra’s ways of teaching.
With the continuous focus on rigor and standards, Sandra knows that, “it is only when students feel that they belong and that all adults in the building care about them as people, as well as in their learning, that the achievement gap closes.” She seeks out “learning activities that are relevant to my students’ cultural experiences, while at the same time, encouraging them, as well as myself, to stretch beyond the familiar.”
Sandra offers advice to new teachers and to those looking for renewed energy. “Tap into your genuine passions and convictions. Your effectiveness in inciting student curiosity and desire to learn is based on your own interest, excitement, and enthusiasm, coupled with your strong conviction in the value of reading widely and writing feverishly.”
May we all follow Sandra and keep our enthusiasm for teaching alive and follow our convictions.