Among eight finalists, Citizen Potawatomi Nation tribal member and special education teacher Sandra Bradley received recognition as Shawnee Public Schools’ 2021 Teacher of the Year. She works with fourth and fifth-grade special education students at Horace Mann Elementary School, where she started six years ago.

The district held a ceremony and small reception with pandemic precautions at the beginning of March. It was the first such award for the Tescier family descendant.

“It was overwhelming. I was in awe that they had said my name aloud and was kind of in shock, like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ And so I think, all in all, it’s been very much a dream that I think I’m going to wake up from,” she said.

Educators faced many challenges throughout the pandemic, including how to teach students in person and online using digital platforms. Bradley thought of her colleagues in her building and across the country while she accepted the award.

“I think that there are outstanding teachers everywhere and every district that go above and beyond to do their job to meet the needs of those students and the families in each area that we’re at,” she said. “And so I feel like my nomination is just a reflection of saying, ‘Hey, congratulations to all of you.’ … Because I think that every teacher deserves recognition because of not only what we’ve walked through but how much we have the opportunity to invest in these lives that are put before us.”

Bradley received a plaque as well as a $500 check for improvements and supplies for her classroom. She plans to spend some of it on her “classroom store,” where her students trade in the “money” they earn for prizes such as notebooks, toys, snacks, toothbrushes and more.

“They look forward to getting paid every day to do their work because I want them to learn that when you do your job well, then you’re going to get paid for that. It is not just going to be given to you, and I think it’s very important to instill those things early in life,” in particular for special education students, Bradley said.

“There’s just an opportunity to help them find out who they can be and how they can be the best that they can be in their environment and contribute to their community as they get older.”

She creates the most comfortable and productive learning environment available for her students. She challenges them to take on new skill sets and improve upon their existing knowledge. Helping them keep an open mind allows them to achieve more.

“In my class, we don’t say, ‘We can’t.’ So we try everything. So whatever it is — if it’s an experiment, if it’s a new subject, if it’s multiplication — we’re going to try. And so it’s part of my philosophy of teaching. And the kids know that because they hear someone say ‘can’t,’ they’re like, ‘No, don’t say that. Ms. Bradley doesn’t like that word,’” she said and laughed.

Bradley realizes now her third and fifth-grade teachers profoundly influenced her life — one of the many reasons she enjoys spending her time with elementary-aged children.

“It has been cultivated by other teachers who themselves being good teachers kind of plant that even deeper into your heart. And so you want to be like them, or you want to be able to do what they have done so well,” she said.

With 25 years of teaching experience, Bradley still keeps others at the forefront of her mind in her classroom, even while winning an award.

“I’m thankful, very, very, very thankful that so many in the community blessed not only myself but many teachers who were nominated because the community, various businesses in the community, donated prizes and gift cards to say, ‘Thank you, we appreciate you,’ and that was overwhelming,” she said.

Bradley looks forward to having all students in person for the following school year. Find more about Shawnee Public Schools at