A Teacher of the Year reflects on the highs (and one low) of her TFA service.
August 25, 2016
Sara Bowers (Washington ’14) knew she wanted to work with people and see an immediate impact. Teach For America was the means to that end.
After graduating from Oregon State, she moved to rural Washington to teach math at an alternative high school. Though many of her students were considered at-risk, 80 percent of her seniors fulfilled the state's math graduation requirement and their true potential.
The results helped Sara earn the 2015 Teacher of the Year award at Compass High School. Here she reflects on key moments in her journey to TFA and beyond.
Name two people who inspired you to join TFA.
Two people—my older sister and Fred Thompson. My older sister had a disability, and I spent a lot of time from an early age thinking about her surroundings, anticipating obstacles and finding ways for her to be independent. Even though I had no idea I wanted to be a teacher, it helped me develop the skill set that later, when I thought about it, really made sense.
Fred was the very first student I worked with as a study facilitator when I worked Oregon State. He was a freshman, a big defensive lineman from Oakland, California. He told me a lot about his life, and how teachers passed him through classes based on his athletic ability. At the end of that term, he was playing a pickup basketball game at the gym, suffered a heart attack and died. I just remember studying for my finals and thinking that working as an engineer didn’t matter as much as the impact I could have on students’ lives. That drove me to TFA, to be that person who can push a kid and show them all the labels that have been put on them don’t have to be true.
Share an “a-ha” moment with your students.
I remember once thinking that my kids weren’t motivated, and all I needed to do was show them math was important. So we took a day and read an article about why math was important, and at the end of the day, I had them write a reflection. I had one kid say, “Miss, we know math is important. That doesn’t make us feel any better about the fact that we can’t do it.” That’s when I realized I was going about things the wrong way. Instead of pushing information that I thought my students needed to hear, I started listening a lot more.
Talk about a time you made an impact.
In my classroom, I was relatively notorious for never asking a kid to leave. My first year, I had one class that was very rowdy. One kid would walk in every day and say, “Hello juvenile delinquents, here it is, Applied Algebra, the lowest of the low.” And every day, I would say, “Luis, you cannot label yourself like that or it is going to be true. Nobody here needs that label. You don’t need that label. We have to move past it.” So often, I told them that, “I 100 percent believe in your ability to change, so I won’t ask you to leave my classroom. You can make a better choice.” For the first couple of months that was rough. But once they started working on it, they excelled. I have a video from the end of the year of a discussion that my class was leading. Every single person in the class was participating, and I maybe interjected three times. They were in charge of their learning at that point. That culture of—I believe in you and I know you can be better—so many of the kids hadn’t heard. It gave them the opportunity to take risks, academic and not, and overcome.
Share a misperception about rural schools.
I think a lot of people assume rural schools are teaching traditionally. Grandview is not like that at all. It’s so open-minded and progressive. All the things I was taught at Institute and by my University of Washington professors are already things we are doing in our classrooms. We have professional development with our departments, a math coach that writes our curriculum, and my principal was probably my biggest support during my first year. I could go to her for anything and she was more than willing to push me and to celebrate with me.
Tell us about the best banquet ever.
During the Teacher of the Year banquet, we also honored a Student of the Year for each of our schools. Compass selected one of my students, Alex, who would continually come in after class and ask for more work. He said he wanted to be ready to go to college. So I started teaching him Algebra 2 at the same time we were doing Geometry in class. All that in mind, he was a super quiet and super shy kid who didn’t speak up much when we weren’t talking about math. At the award ceremony, the principal handed the microphone to each of kids who won from the schools. I made eye contact with Alex and was like, “Are you going to talk?” And he mouthed, “No way.” Then when the principal called him up, he grabbed the mic and looked at me and said, “I just want my teachers to know they have really and truly changed my life because they never gave up on me and always pushed me.” As much as getting acknowledged with a teaching award was nice, at that moment I thought, “This kid turned it around, and I saw him do it, and I know I was a part of it.” That made it for me.