ROCKINGHAM — Yolanda Sawyer told herself during undergraduate studies that she never wanted to teach kindergarten.
“I observed a kindergarten classroom while student-teaching and thought it was chaotic, and I laughed,” she said.
Little did she know that teaching kindergarten students would be her career for 22 years, starting at Rohanen Primary. Rohanen combined with Cordova Elementary to form East Rockingham Elementary in 2010.
“Never say never,” she said with a laugh.
Sawyer comes from a long line of teachers. Her dad was a high school teacher, counselor and administrator, and her mom taught elementary school for a year. Her oldest sister, and several aunts, uncles and cousins also have careers in the education field.
“My parents instilled a love of learning and respect for education in us,” she said. “(My parents) provide guidance, a listening ear and advice.”
In addition to her family of educators, there was one teacher who stood out.
“In high school, I went through a rebellious phase and I didn’t apply myself,” she said. “My AP English teacher, Jeanette Martin, never belittled me and I knew she loved me and wanted me to succeed.”
Martin’s belief in Sawyer inspired her to pursue a career in education. She graduated from Winston-Salem State University in 1996 with a degree in elementary education and received her master’s degree from The University of North Carolina at Pembroke in 2000.
Sawyer involves herself in several organizations, including the National Education Association, the North Carolina Association of Educators, the National Council for the Social Studies, the National Science Teachers Association, the North Carolina Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
“It keeps me abreast of what’s going on in the educational field,” she said.
Principal Jaime Greene has worked with Sawyer since East Rockingham Elementary School opened. Greene said she sees Sawyer’s passion for teaching and helping others grow.
“She has many achievements, but her greatest achievement is her exemplary talent and abilities to reach children,” Greene said. “She believes in all children and has a gift of ensuring each child knows that she believes in them.”
Kindergarten teacher Tammy McDonald said she sees Sawyer’s passion for her children both inside and outside the classroom.
“Yolanda is kind and so helpful, always looking for ways to help our school and the family within,” McDonald said. “She works closely with her students and their families to help her students grow as learners and citizens.”
Building relationships with students and parents is important to Sawyer. Every morning they have what she calls “family group.” Students go down the list of names of their peers and greet each of them with a wave and “good morning.” They shake each others’ hands, look each other in the eyes when talking to each other, give compliments and share interesting stories about something that happened recently to them.
“It builds a sense of community with one another,” Sawyer said. “We spend 180 days together, so we have to learn how to get along.”
Sawyer said she makes phone calls to parents regularly to ask what their children like to do at home, so she can spark their interests and curiosity in the classroom.
Teresa Shepard’s daughter, Adrianna, was in Sawyer’s class this past year. Shephard said she would read “Me and My Daddy” to Adrianna every night until one day, the tables were turned: Adrianna said she wanted to read to Shepard instead. Shepard said she didn’t expect her daughter to read the book word-for-word, presuming she would just describe what she thought the book said.
But to her surprise, her daughter read the book aloud to her.
“It amazed me how much she learned in one school year,” Shepard said. “(Adrianna) told me she wanted to keep it a secret until she learned how to read the book.”
“Ms. Sawyer is a godsend,” Shepard said. “She really is.”
Sawyer was awarded Teacher of the Year for Richmond County Schools in August and said she was humbled by the experience. She emphasized that her win isn’t all about her, it’s for her kids.
“It was an honor to be named by my peers,” she said. “I enjoy teaching and teaching this class level. They’re excited to learn and I’m excited to teach them.”
Sawyer said the win couldn’t have happened without the help and support she’s received from the “unsung heroes”: her teaching assistants. She thanks God for blessing her with the support system she has around her.
“I have been taught, challenged and helped along my journey as a teacher by wonderful people,” she said. “And I am grateful to God for them.”
After her win, Sawyer displayed her award at home and said, “Let’s get to work.”
Reach Jasmine Hager at 910-817-2675 or [email protected]