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Franklin STEAM Academy Principal Sara Sanders has seen Joe Pickell’s development as a teacher up close. Seventeen years ago, Sanders and Pickell were two of 12 new teachers at Franklin STEAM Academy.

“I’ve literally watched him grow into this amazing educator,” Sanders said. “So it’s been fun to watch him as a colleague and as a building principal.

“He’s one of those teachers that is just solid. He will always go above and beyond. He knows how to advocate for every student in any situation. He does it with an immense amount of knowledge, wisdom, experience, compassion, just an overall great father, great teacher, great husband. Just genuine at heart.”

On the final day of the school year on Friday, Pickell was given the Champaign-Urbana Schools Foundation’s Mann-Hankel Teaching Excellence Award in a surprise presentation in his classroom.

Pickell doesn’t hesitate to go out of his way to do what’s needed for his students.

When he decided he needed tables for his classroom so that his students could collaborate, the school didn’t have the funds. So Pickell took some old tables, refurbished them himself, and brought them into his classroom.

He created the school’s “Gamer Club,” where he invites kids to come into his room to learn about and play all sorts of board games.

Sanders says he’s always thinking of new ways to engage his students, and this year is no exception.

“He continues to learn a lot with his students, he continues to seek out creative ways to teach his students, even this hybrid model,” Sanders said. “He handled that with a lot of patience and perseverance. He’s a leader in our building. People can go to him for professional and personal advice. They trust him, they value his opinion.”

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