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A Q&A with ATPE's 2021 Elementary Educator of the Year

Association of Texas Professional Educators
Association of Texas Professional Educators

Date Posted: 10/05/2021

The Charles Pickitt Educator of the Year Awards recognize ATPE members who demonstrate exceptional or innovative capabilities in their respective educational fields. This year’s winners were honored during the 2021 ATPE Virtual Summit. 

The 2021 Elementary Educator of the Year Award went to Sally Hunter of Austin ISD. Sally started teaching and became an ATPE member in August 1980 and has taught kindergarten, first, second, third, and fourth grades at schools in Houston and Austin. Most of her career has been spent at Highland Park Elementary. ATPE reached out to Sally to get her thoughts on the future of Texas public education. 

What made you want to be an educator?
I first shared why I decided to become an educator back in 1980 during an interview with a hiring principal. At the time, I told her I loved working with children and knew from watching my mother, who taught kindergarten for 43 years, that teaching was a rewarding career. Those reasons are still true, but I quickly realized my passion for being an educator has much deeper roots. Some of the most important moments in the world take place between teachers and students in classrooms everywhere, every day. My work as an educator allows me to not only experience those moments with my students, but also to influence and encourage other teachers who share powerful moments with students in their own classrooms. 

As a teacher, I have the privilege of teaching the whole child and helping lay the foundation for their life as an adult. I have the opportunity to share observations and experiences with the parents and impact the entire family. I help each student to understand their strengths and how to fully use them. Who could say teachers are not powerful? 

As a teacher, my influence will go on into the future, long after I have retired. These past few years, I have had the great pleasure of teaching across the hall from a talented young man I taught when he was in third grade. Connections with students and families can last a lifetime. Who could say that teaching is not fulfilling? 

As a teacher, I can take the stage and perform if needed. I can burst into song, and 20 voices join me or share laughter over inside jokes. I can give students the stage and witness the amazing fourth-grade year when students are old enough to explore the world but still young enough to love their teacher. I have the joy of helping precious second graders and sharing their wonder in exploring who they are and how they relate to those around them. Who could say that teaching is not fun? 

My 40 years of experience confirm that, for me, there is no profession more essential and fulfilling. 

What is your biggest hope for the future of Texas public schools?
I am struck by the reality that schools today require teachers to become skilled performers in an increasingly complex and critical balancing act. Schools are overwhelmed with government mandates, liability-inspired paperwork, overemphasis on high-stakes testing, and the bureaucratic tendency to jump on new ideas and methods simply because they are new. Evaluating schools, teachers, and students has become a checklist of what is easiest to test, rather than what will prepare individual students to become confident, active, productive citizens.                                        

Texas leaders and administrators at every level must refocus priorities to support teachers as they work to restore the balance of their time and energy back on what is most important—teaching students.  Teachers need that support and the freedom to help each individual learner develop crucial connections:

  • Connections to their own strengths through family, culture, and heritage.
  • Connections to the people, struggles, and accomplishments of the past.
  • Connections to the power they have to impact their community, state, and nation.
  • Connections to the future through their own dreams and actions today.

Without these essential connections, students will never reach their full potential or have truly successful and satisfying adult lives, no matter how skilled they become in taking reading, math, and science tests. 

My biggest hope for the future of our public schools is that Texas will empower districts and teachers to tip the instructional scales in students’ favor by creating learning environments in which these connections are inevitable. Teachers who provide the structure and flexibility for students to explore the world and apply their discoveries in creative and meaningful ways. Teachers who train students to work together, build on one another’s ideas, respectfully disagree with one another, and provide supporting evidence for their ideas and perspectives. Teachers who encourage students to set and pursue their own goals while helping them develop strategies to achieve those goals. 

Students must understand themselves and their power in the world before they can begin to understand the rich and amazing possibilities the world has to offer them.