Snoqualmie Valley's Teachers of the Year make learning fun, relevant

Opstad Elementary’s Sharon Piper annually introduces third graders to the life cycle of fish. Piper is a 2011 Snoqualmie Valley Schools Foundation Teacher of the Year. - Carol Ladwig / Snoqualmie Valley Record
Opstad Elementary’s Sharon Piper annually introduces third graders to the life cycle of fish. Piper is a 2011 Snoqualmie Valley Schools Foundation Teacher of the Year.
— image credit: Carol Ladwig / Snoqualmie Valley Record

It never seems to stop. In the halls, in class, even during Chris Blake's prep period, students have questions for him. "And it's kind of important," says one boy, apologetically interrupting him.

The math and science teacher is busy, but asks, "OK, what is it?"

"West Virginia or Kentucky?"

Blake can't help himself. He tries to smother a grin as he points to the door, and says "OK, not now. Go." He pauses, then says "I'm going Kentucky on that one, though."

"YES!" says the boy, and happily departs.

It is March Madness at Chief Kanim Middle School, and Blake, a teacher and coach of football and basketball, is at the center of a flurry of boys trying to fill out their team brackets and follow along with the NCAA men's basketball championships. He uses the school's tournament mania to make his favorite subject, math, both fun and relevant to his students.

His ability to do that, to make learning spill out of the classroom and into students' lives, is one of the reasons he was named a Snoqualmie Valley Schools Foundation Teacher of the Year on March 9. It's a quality he shares with his fellow Teachers of the Year Sharon Piper at Opstad Elementary School and Kim Sales at Mount Si High School.

Another thing the three teachers share is their motivation.

"It's the kids, " said Blake, who's been teaching sixth grade math and science at Chief Kanim for all of his 15-year career.

"They're all very sweet," said Piper who's been at Opstad for 10 years, and teaching third grade for 15. "Like I tell them, 'I learn way more from you guys than you do from me.'"

"I get to have fun with 16 to 18 year-olds every single day, and my job is to make learning relevant, and as a result, fun for them," said Kim Sales.

Kim Sales

Sales teaches law and business at Mount Si, and oversees the operation of a functioning credit union, the Wildcat Branch of Sno-Falls Credit Union, open in the school commons daily for all three lunch periods. Students at the branch are all trained by the credit union as tellers, and they use the skills learned in Sales' classes to complete up to 10 transactions per lunch period, manage cash, and reconcile their receipts at the end of a shift.

"The kids love it," she says, "... it's a skill that they have now."

Skills and schedules are at the heart of Sales' teaching. Her classes are in the Career and Technical Education program, which used to be known as vocational classes. While others might have looked down on those classes, she never did.

"It's not about college or not college, it's about skills," she said. "It's about empowering and really impacting our students."

To do that in her usually full classrooms, Sales focuses on organization.

"If you want to run an effective classroom, where you are affecting student learning 50 to 55 minutes out of 55 minutes, you better -- a teacher better have basically a minute-by-minute plan for each class that they're doing."

Sales inherited her love of teaching from her mother, who was also her eighth grade English teacher. "She had a love of learning, and God also gave her a gift, a true gift, to teach... and I like to think that she passed that on to me."

"When I was presented the award, and it was in my classroom here, well, I just started bawling, and I know why. Because I love teaching and my students so much -- what I do, and these kids, are in my heart, and soul really -- and to be recognized with this award, just squeezed my heart."

Chris Blake

Blake on the other hand, almost laughed. "I thought it was a joke!" he said, but "when we had our ceremony, they read some of the (nomination) letters from students and parents... and I realized, I have a good gig here, I have a good relationship with the kids, and I've been very lucky. It made me feel very lucky, very blessed to be where I'm at, working with the people I do."

It was his own middle school experience in Chewelah, Wash., that made him start thinking about teaching someday—but only as a backup plan. He already knew what he wanted to do. "In sixth grade? I was shortstop for the Yankees," he said.

His sixth grade teacher was also his freshman baseball coach, later an assistant principal at Chief Kanim, and ultimately one of Blake's inspirations to teach.

"My year in sixth grade was his first year in teaching, and he had the room like this..." he gestures around the classroom, papered with posters and signs, dotted with cardboard cutouts, and a couch. "It was fun... he made learning fun for me."

Blake takes that approach in teaching math and science to his sixth graders, too. "I'm doing my best to get them excited about it, and at least bust their butts for their sixth grade career," he said. "I try to have a lot of energy, I try to make it as fun as I can, we play math games to get motivated..." He demonstrates one of the tools he uses, an ActivExpressions device that transfers student answers to a television screen. "They think they're playing a game, but they're actually doing math," he said.

He loves teaching sixth grade, which is such a formative year for students. He sees them go through a lot of changes, and he appreciates the opportunity he's been given to shape their lives.

"Seeing them happy and enjoying school makes me feel like I'm doing something right." he said. "If the Yankees call me, though..."

Sharon Piper

Piper has a couple of confessions to make. The first is "the only reason I got this (Teacher of the Year award) was because of Marianne Bradburn.... She should have gotten it with me!"

Bradburn, Piper said, has been "awesome" and invaluable as a teaching and planning partner over the years.

"We decided it was hard to teach on the fly," Piper explained, and so about four years ago, they started meeting on Fridays to plan the next week's lessons. It took hours.

"We have it written down, we're going to teach this page, and we really push each other to ask why we're teaching it, what's the point of teaching it, what do we want the kids to learn?" she said.

An important lesson that Piper wants all of her students to learn is about discrimination. It's her favorite unit to teach but one of the most difficult.

"All the kids hear that," she says, reading from a huge red sign on her desk, "What's essential is invisible to the eye."

Learning that, though, means learning about all the ways people can discriminate against each other. Piper spends two days each year on the famed Blue Eyes Brown Eyes experiment by Jane Elliott, in which a third grade class learns prejudice against their classmates based on eye color. Her experiment is much shorter and tamer, since brown-eyed students only ignored their blue-eyed classmates, and vice-versa, but just as hard on students and teacher.

"I cried like three times a day. I do every time," Piper said. "I'm exhausted by the end of the day, because I'm just so used to walking around and saying good job, good job, but whoever was being discriminated against was in the back, and I had to ignore them."

Piper is not very good at ignoring children, and never has been. So, when she and her husband, David, had a daughter, followed by twin boys a few years later, she gave up teaching.

"I thought I can't be a good teacher and a good mom," she explained.

In a few years, though, she was substitute-teaching at Opstad, and her children were attending the school. She wanted to go back into the classroom and do what her eighth-grade teacher had done for her. "That's what I want to do, be able to make kids feel like 'you're not dumb!'"

Her other confession? "I would do this for no pay!"

Piper, Blake, and Sales were all nominated by colleagues, parents, and students for excellence in education and dedication to students.

• The Snoqualmie Valley Schools Foundation will host a public luncheon to recognize the Teachers of the Year Thursday March 24, from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Snoqualmie Ridge Golf Club.


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