My Story: Sarah Woodard
by Sarah Woodard | 05.4.16
Sarah Woodard is a high school teacher at Collegiate Prep Academy in Denver, CO.
It was the fall of 2012 when I knew I needed to take a new direction as an educator. I was teaching Secondary Literacy at the University of Denver (DU) in the Teacher Education Program (TEP); one of the goals of the DU TEP certification is placing apprentice teachers in urban classrooms for their field work. Three or four weeks into the quarter, though, my students reported they weren’t observing any of the literacy strategies and methods we were learning about in their urban classroom settings. Instead, they were increasingly frustrated with the amount of worksheets and busywork that did not align with the researched-based practices we were learning.
This is when I knew I needed to return to an urban school setting to have the opportunity to implement effective instruction. At the time, I was teaching middle school in a suburban setting—I had worked in the same community for 16 years and while I loved my work and my students, I was itching for a new challenge and wanted to return to a high-need high school, much like the school where I began my teaching career in 1996.
Just a month or two after I decided that I wanted to pursue a teaching position in a high-need school, I learned that some significant changes were taking place at the only Title I high school in Jefferson County Public Schools. I was informed that the entire Jefferson High School articulation area was implementing a 1:1 iPad adoption for the 2013 -2014 school year. When I heard this news, I knew that I absolutely wanted to teach at Jefferson. In addition to literacy instruction, technology is another of my educational passions—especially the role of technology to support literacy instruction. I have been using Google Apps for Education since 2008 as well as other digital spaces for learning and collaboration, and I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to teach in a Title I school with 1:1 technology.
However, deciding that I wanted to work at Jefferson High School was only part of the transition. There had to be a job opening and I needed to apply, interview and be offered a position—something I hadn’t done for 16 years. In early March I was told that due to incredibly low and stagnate achievement data (virtually no growth from 2007 to 2013), an entirely new administrative team was being hired at Jefferson. With all of the changes taking place it wasn’t until the end of June 2013 that I was officially hired. I was ecstatic! Not only was I realizing my calling to a 1:1 Title I school, I was presented the opportunity to work with an amazing set of administrators—in fact, my new principal, Martha Gustafson, was the 2011 Colorado Principal of the Year.
In my 20-year teaching career, I have been incredibly fortunate to work with several remarkable principals. I find myself gravitating to strong leaders who have a work ethic that mirrors my own—leaders who are visionary, innovative and stop at nothing to do what is best for students. When I met my new administrator, I had absolutely no doubt that I had made the right decision and career move to teach in a turnaround school. In one year’s time we were able to move Jefferson out of priority improvement.
At the end of our first year at Jefferson, my principal was presented with the opportunity to lead another Title I turnaround school in Denver Public Schools (DPS). Because I was committed to working in a Title I turnaround setting and I have the utmost respect for my principal, I knew I had to figure out a way to teach at Collegiate Prep Academy in DPS. It isn’t easy moving from one school district to another after 18 years, but growth comes with taking risks and I made the transition.
It’s impossible to capture all that I experienced and learned in two back-to-back years of year one in turnaround schools. I’m continually learning and reflecting on my journey, but what I do know is that choosing to work in Title I, turnaround settings is helping me become a better teacher. I wouldn’t say a more effective teacher yet, because I have a long way to go in order to feel like I’m successfully and consistently meeting the needs of my students, but I do know that my mentors and supports are vital to my continual growth as an educator. In fact, I have become even more cognizant of the crucial role mentorship plays in my quest to become more effective for my students.
It’s interesting, because as a veteran teacher who has been in the classroom for nearly two decades, it would seem that I am typically in the role of a mentor. Indeed, I do plenty of mentoring through my work as an instructor at DU, as a Denver Writing Project co-director, as a teacher leader in my building and as a teacher for my students; however, no matter how much experience a teacher has or what a teacher’s roles or titles might be, we all need mentoring and support. We need someone to think with us, guide us, question us, reflect with us. Over the past two years, I have been incredibly fortunate to work with invaluable mentors: my principal, my teacher effectiveness coach, my colleagues and my students. I have no desire to leave the classroom anytime in the near future and moving forward I know that my mentors will play a significant role in my continual development as an effective educator.
Mentorship is cyclical. We all can identify individuals who have helped shape who we are—professionally and personally—and the responsibility and role of a mentor shifts as we progress through our careers and lives. When I think about mentorship in this week of teacher appreciation, I am reminded of the teachers and mentors in my life who have helped me become who I am. I think about the ways I have grown as a result of mentoring.
Reflecting on the course my career has taken over the past few years, I think about the opportunities that were presented to me and how these experiences have guided me to where I am today. I have learned so much and as challenging as it is, I know I am doing the right work at this point in my career. Why do I teach? Because I have so much more to learn. And this commitment to learning makes me a more effective teacher for my students. I am grateful for the mentors I’ve had throughout my life thus far and especially for those who have believed in me and guided me as a teacher. Ultimately, I am grateful for my students who teach me how to be better every day.
Take a moment and consider those who have mentored you and who you mentor. In what ways have you grown as a result of your mentoring? What qualities does that individual possess that make him or her an effective mentor? How do you mentor others? What do your students teach you about how to be the most effective teacher and mentor for them? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Connect with Sarah on Twitter @scwoodard.