It took Sandra Hall 44 years to find her way into teaching. It took her just eight years to reach the top of her new profession.
The fourth-grade teacher from North Smyrna Elementary School in Smyrna, Delaware was named the state’s 2016 teacher of the year at a Tuesday night ceremony.
Hall spent her early career in advertising and later lived abroad for 10 years with her husband, a career military man. She didn’t become a full-time teacher until she was 44.
Hall graduated with a Masters in Education from Wilmington University in December 2007 and started at North Smyrna Elementary School later that month.
She’s since become a top teacher, in part, she said, because she tries to understand her students’ lives beyond the classroom walls.
“I must take the time to be their counselor, their cheerleader and their provider before I can tackle academic instruction,” Hall wrote in her application. “Understanding, accepting, and facilitating their story must come first, then today’s lessons can be accomplished.”
Hall returned to that theme of students’ individuality in a brief acceptance speech.
“We must get to know the children behind the data,” she told the audience gathered at Dover Downs Hotel and Conference Center in Dover, Delaware.
Hall added later in an interview that she understands the need to collect and use statistical information, but that the public must remember that those numbers represent real children with complicated life stories. It’s a message she plans to emphasize using her platform as teacher of the year.
“We’re a world full of data, full of testing,” she said. “It’s important to know the children behind the data.”
There were 19 nominees for Delaware teacher of the year, one from each district. By virtue of her victory Tuesday, Hall becomes Delaware’s nominee in the national teacher of the year competition, overseen by the Council of Chief State School Officers.
Hall will receive $5,000 as well as a $5,000 grant she can use to benefit her students’ education. She’ll also enjoy a prestigious title that can become an on ramp into higher-level policy discussions.
Megan Szabo, the 2015 Delaware teacher of the year, used her time in the position to focus on the use of technology in the classroom. Earlier this year, she helped draft and promote a Senate Concurrent Resolution to establish a task force on educational technology. Szabo said Tuesday she hopes to continue working on policy issues.
“I’m not done yet,” she said with a smile.
Hall knows her new title will bring opportunities, though she worries they’ll keep her from her students.
“That will be the hardest part of this adventure, taking time away from them,” she said.
Given her quick transition from career-changer to teacher extraordinare, Hall was asked whether she knew right away she’d be a great educator.
She smiled and replied, “I knew I loved it.”