Doing comes before dreaming in the dictionary. In real life, sometimes it’s the same way.
Just ask Sarah Spector.
Spector, 29, has packed a lot of doing into her life helping her land her dream job as a science teacher at Bishop McGann-Mercy High School. Growing up in Southern Oregon, Spector was drawn to science because she loved being outdoors and being able to identify what she was looking at – “knowing how nature and the world worked.” Earning a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Studies and Biology cemented that love into lots of concrete knowledge about the natural world.
She became a volunteer member of the back-country ski patrol at Crater Lake National Park as one way to get outdoors as much as possible. The National Park Service recognized her enthusiasm and understanding of nature and hired her as a park ranger.
That was when Spector first stepped into the classroom as a teacher. In the park service’s Junior Ranger program, she taught informal lessons to young tourists about Crater Lake’s unique habitat. But the park had grant money available to local school districts for funding field trips that brought students into the park and Spector spent the bulk of her teaching time with them.
She left teaching when she moved to Utah, but soon realized she missed those days of working with kids. She began to dream of becoming a school teacher. She “didn’t really want to go back to school, having been out of it for a while,” but ended up at “Westminster, a fabulous small private college, in Salt Lake City” where she earned a Master of Arts in Teaching. It was there that a professor planted another dream in Spector’s mind.
And this time, it was a Really Big Dream.
The professor, a Knowles Teaching Fellow herself, encouraged Spector to apply for a national fellowship award with the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation.The goal of the foundation is to create a national network of high-quality teachers of science, technology, engineering and mathematics – commonly referred to as STEM subjects.
The application process was a year long, involving phone interviews in the fall and a spring cross-country trip to Philadelphia for a round of interviews which narrowed the pool of applicants from 60 semi-finalists to 34 winners. And Spector was among them, winning a “comprehensive suite of benefits for five years, including summer stipends, funds for professional development, grants for teaching materials, mentoring and support from experienced teachers and teacher educators, support for teacher leadership activities, and membership in a community of more than 300 like-minded peers in 40 states,” according to the Foundation’s press release announcing her award.
She’d had some formal teaching experience in Salt Lake City’s public schools by then – as a student teacher where normal class size was 30 to 35 students, and once was even 44 students – and as a half-year leave replacement.
Fast forward a few months and Long Island became Spector’s new home. Within weeks she was hired at Bishop McGann-Mercy to teach Regents and general Earth Science and forensics, and she’s the Wetlands Coordinator, too. For her, she “feels lucky to have landed a job which fits [her] interests.” She loves working at her new job because “Mercy is a very supportive environment,” she said; she’s proud that her fellowship award helps the school community, too.
Her principal, Dr. Carl Semmler, feels lucky, too. “We are proud to have Mrs. Spector as a part of the McGann-Mercy educational team. She has the rare combination of intelligence, dedication, compassion and clarity of thought that are found in burgeoning teachers of excellence,” he said.
Semmler continued praising his new teacher. “The Knowles Science Teaching Foundation fellowship is an impressive program. The collaborative nature of the professional development allows quality teachers of various backgrounds to share their ideas and best practices. Mrs. Spector certainly fits into our culture of educational excellence here at Mercy.”
Spector has dreams for her students and for her new school home. The wetlands need some help, she said. After a construction project on campus moved the pond to a new location, there’s been an influx of invasive plants crowding out the native species. Spector is looking forward to starting an environmental club. The kids that are involved will be getting some real life experience in solving the issues that plague the wetland. They’ll “help her inventory the wetland plants” on the campus and by “doing some weeding and planting” they’ll restore the pond to its original pristine state.
She’s eager to set up classrooms with “a space that’s safe and secure for everyone. Both boys and girls need to feel comfortable – and that’s not easy. We’ve spent a lot of time this week on the idea that intelligence is something you can increase with work.” She said she’s working on getting the students – and herself – to “ask good questions and let them make mistakes.”
Mercy is much different than her Salt Lake City schools. Here her largest class size is 22 students and some have just a handful of students. She also has five exchange students from China in her earth science classes. But, like teachers everywhere, the best part of the job “is the kids – I have so much fun with them. For me as a new teacher it’s really satisfying to see that light bulb go on,” she said. “It’s just so gratifying when a kid says, ‘Oh, I really liked that. That was cool.'”
As for the honor of being named a Knowles Teaching Fellow, Spector says she feels “really privileged to have received it. It’s really empowering to be part of a group of such strong teachers with the same philosophy. They’re willing to give their time to give critical, but constructive, advice on any topic.”
She dreams of one day when she’ll be on the giving end of that advice.