For the past seven years, Sarah Garrison has taught grade school in her hometown of Seiling, Oklahoma. This year, she was named 2023 Elementary Teacher of the Year.
“It was very surprising, and it was just an honor to be chosen,” she said. “It was a good group of kids, and it was an interesting year.”
Garrison graduated from the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond in 2005. She has taught in Oklahoma schools for 16 years, starting out for seven years at Choctaw-Nicoma Park Schools and then teaching two years at Crutcho Public Schools in Oklahoma City.
“I’ve had three different administrators, and all of them have been pretty amazing. They each brought something different to my learning experience and my education,” Garrison said.
She said teaching can come with many challenges, which vary greatly depending on the school.
Teaching in a previous school where many students had difficult home lives, including students who were homeless, was a challenge, she said, but also rewarding.
“Those kids, they love hard,” Garrison said, explaining that she tried to provide a safe environment. “This is their safe space, and they may not have anywhere else that they feel safe but at school. If you can make them feel safe, then they’re going to open up and share.”
Garrison also worked to earn the respect of her students.
“If you treat kids with respect, they’re going to respect you. Even if they’re children, they’re still human and deserve respect as well,” she said. “Some of these kids have had teachers who are exhausted and have bad days, and it just takes one bad incident for a kid to get a bad taste in their mouth. It’s an uphill battle to get their mindset to change.”
Teaching in her hometown, Garrison sees different challenges, especially in a rural school where everyone knows everyone else.
“That can be a good thing or a bad thing, because everyone has your phone number,” she said. “I’ve had to learn to set boundaries. I want to answer that phone call at 9 or 10 at night, when I should not. I feel obligated to do that, and I’ve had to learn to say no on a few things.”
Rural schools also have different resources, especially regarding technology. And, when it comes to professional development, teachers in rural areas often have to drive long distances to attend workshops.
She said teaching is definitely a calling and not a field someone gets into for the pay.
Garrison said she wanted to teach from a young age, and she was inspired by her grandmother and a favorite teacher.
“Learning was always hard for me, so it was always a little bit difficult,” she said. “I wanted to help other kids, like how my own teachers made me feel and didn’t give up on me.”
Hearing from students who tell her she made a difference is one thing that helps Garrison through the difficult times in teaching.
“The most rewarding thing is when you have students that will check back in with you that are older, and they remember certain things you did in the classroom, or they tell you that you were the only one that really heard them,” she said. “It just makes you feel like you’re doing something right. There’s so much going on in the classroom that it’s easy to feel defeated and easy to feel overwhelmed. It just makes you want to push through.”
Garrison is a Navarre family descendant with many memories of traveling to Shawnee, Oklahoma, each summer, staying at the Cinderella Motel and meeting family from all over at the Family Reunion Festival.
She still attends Festival as often as she can. Along with enjoying the opportunity to see some familiar faces, she appreciates how much Citizen Potawatomi Nation does to help educate and retain the culture.
She added that she has benefited from CPN in her teaching career as well, explaining that when she was teaching in Choctaw, they received money from the Johnson O’Malley Program and funds from CPN.
Garrison said she still has several years of teaching ahead before retirement, so she doesn’t know exactly what lies in store. And while she said teaching seems to become more difficult every year, good coworkers make a big difference.
“It’s so important to have good coworkers to help you through those bad days and to have a little bit of comic relief,” she said. “Only teachers get it. You might have a bad year and the next year be the best one you ever experienced. Every class is so different. I learn something new about myself or other kids every year.”