We sat down with the 2021 Arizona Educational Foundation Teacher of the Year, Sara Wyffels, to learn more about how she got where she is today and where she wants to go. Here’s what she had to say:
Tell us about yourself
I’ve been teaching for 15 years, the last 13 of those have been at Chandler High School. I’m originally from Seattle – that’s where I started my education career. It’s also where I earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education.
Today, I’m teaching high school Spanish at the Chandler Online Academy. I started learning Spanish in high school. A second language was a requirement, but I learned to like it. When I first started college, I planned to major in history. But after I lost my passion for that, I took a refresher course in Spanish because I enjoyed it. Studying the language helped me to understand what language does for a person and the function that language serves in the world. I knew I wanted to teach Spanish.
A study abroad semester in Spain changed my life. It helped to solidify my language skills and showed me what it means to be a human and taught me that we’re all the same. That it doesn’t matter where we’re from; we all want to be loved and to be safe. I wish more students could have that kind of experience.
I have two kids of my own, in fifth and third grade. They keep me on my toes!
How has the pandemic changed teaching for you?
No surprise here, teaching has been different this year. And not just because I started teaching at the virtual school. I went from teaching high school-level Spanish to teaching 60 8th-graders online.
I had taught middle school in Oregon, so it’s fun to have that age group again. They’re so eager to learn and are so flexible.
But being online is very different. I’ve never taught virtually before… it’s exhausting, but interesting. As an optimist, I always look for what I can’t take from a situation. Even when I feel sad or isolated, I look for the good.
What are your priorities for the coming year?
As we look toward reopening schools, I don’t want to think about getting back to “normal.” But I want to consider what we’ve learned over the past year and how we can use that to renew education. This is an ideal opportunity to reassess how we work, what systems aren’t serving all students equitably and how we can move forward creatively, with an equity lens at the center of what we do.
We know that educator/student relationships need to remain at the center of how we educate children. This year, so many teachers have felt helpless when they couldn’t reach students.
But no challenges have been more pronounced than the gap between those who have access to technology and those who do not. Technology must be embedded in schools because that is how the world functions. We need to help students build those skills and prepare for their future.
The social-emotional health of Arizona’s students and teachers must be a priority in the coming year. It should be a priority over testing so that students have a chance to heal and get stable enough to learn.
I would also love to see more partnerships between businesses and schools. It could be a win-win, as schools get much needed resources and businesses help to create a skilled workforce.
What should Arizonans know about you?
I have the best interests of every Arizona student in mind. I believe that we can do better in all of our classrooms, as educators, as districts and as a state.
As I do my work, I know that listening is more important that speaking. If listening is done thoughtfully, you can learn more about yourself, the other person and the community. Listening doesn’t just mean waiting your turn to speak. This is more important than ever, as our society becomes more and more divided.
What do you wish more people understood about education?
I would love to see more people honor educators as the professionals they are. We are the experts in the room with kids every day and our voices should be respected as such.
I’m a nationally board-certified teacher, meaning that I’m meeting the highest standards of educational excellence. The process of becoming board certified was the best professional experience that I’ve had to-date. It caused me to reflect on what I know and how I teach. I’m constantly asking myself, “How well do I know my students?” Because every decision I make is based on that. To be effective, I need to understand how my students learn, how their lives outside of school are impacting learning and how to reach them.