Q&A with Sally Thompson, winner of Gene Amberg Award
Sally Thompson, a fifth-grade teacher at King Elementary School in Urbana, is this year’s recipient of the Gene Amberg Excellence in Teaching Award. The award — handed out by the Champaign Urbana Schools Foundation and named in honor of the former Urbana superintendent — goes to an educator who exemplifies eight wide-ranging traits, from imaginative teaching approaches to a sense of humor in dealing with peers.
Here's a chat with the Dr. Howard Elementary grad about keeping fifth-graders’ attention, her advice for young teachers and much more.
Q: Did you want to be a teacher when you were a kid?
A: No. A lot of people that I talk to always wanted to be a teacher, but not me. I loved school, though. I loved elementary school and high school, but being a teacher wasn't something I wanted to be. My parents instilled a great love of learning, reading and history to my brother and I. We always went to the library as a family.
My family, including many aunts and uncles, gave me that gift of colorful story telling that is a plus as a teacher. The students love to hear about my family, friends, my husband and our collie/golden retriever mix, Buttercup. But when I was in high school, I wanted to be a social worker.
Q: So, how did you go from aspiring social worker to an award-winning teacher?
A: I started taking classes in social work, but I stopped going to school for a while after one year in college because I did not know what I wanted to do. That's when I got a job at the First Step Preschool in southwest Champaign. Working with those children helped me to realize that I really wanted to become a teacher. I found that I really loved it. I found that I was good at it. Then I went to Eastern Illinois University and got my undergraduate degree in elementary education. Then I got a job here at King Elementary School, and I'm still here today.
Q: How do you engage fifth-graders?
A: A lot of it is my personality. I am bubbly with them as they come in, and I try to make them feel comfortable in my classroom. I am really funny, so I joke a lot with them. I am able to get them excited about things. And I am usually excited about what I am teaching, too. If you are excited about what you are teaching, then they get excited about it. I think that fifth grade fits me a little bit better in some ways than even second and third.
Q: You were recognized by the CU Schools Foundation for excellence in adapting the way you teach. Could you give us an example?
A: As a teacher, you are always doing it. You realize as you go through the year that a student is just not understanding something. At fifth grade, the math is very difficult. We work on adding and subtracting fractions and multiplying and dividing fractions. Some students get this, but a lot of students don't. Many times, I would go over and over and over something with the students. In my class, we write graduation speeches, and one of my students wrote this year that I helped her with her math because I go step by step with it and go over and over it.
Q: What's that feeling like, when you realize a child finally grasps a concept?
A: That's one thing the students like about me. If I find out a kid gets something, I get really excited. I clap and I say, "Yes!" The kids like that. I think, "I'm glad someone got this!" We teach math after lunch, and it is hard for fifth-graders to calm down after lunch. I keep telling them, "Stay with me! Stay with me!" Math involves building blocks, and if a student misses any part of it, they are going to have trouble all through the year.
I say, "Don't stare at the wall. Stay with me!" And they do as much as they can.
Q: What's the most challenging aspect of teaching?
A: Sometimes, we get kids in fifth grade who are two or three years behind in reading. It is a real struggle to teach the fifth-grade curriculum to students who are already struggling at a second or third-grade level. I think that's my biggest challenge. I want to make them realize how important learning is and to quit wasting time. Every year, I share with the fifth-graders a story about a high school student who had a fifth-grade teacher who tried to encourage him and help him. Now, he is in high school and realized that he wasted a lot of years. And now, he is struggling.
I tell the kids: "I am here to get you ready for middle school, for high school and for your life."
Q: How about the most rewarding thing?
A: I love when students come back to see me or send me an email and let me know that what I did for them as a teacher mattered. I guess I want to know that if I died tomorrow, what I did here helped others' lives be happier.
Q: Your advice for new teachers?
A: Make sure that you care about people deeply — or you won't make it in this profession. Put others first, and your job and life will be rewarding.
Also, bring your own personality into the classroom and your students will love you.
The Sally Thompson File
Lives in: Champaign
Works at: King Elementary, Urbana
Husband: Tom, an electrician for Davis Electric
Education: Graduated from Monticello High School. Received undergraduate degree from Eastern Illinois, and master's and doctorate degrees from the University of Illinois.