Her classroom showcases a legacy
Friday, May 14, 2021
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Peering into Sara Szumski’s first-grade classroom is a line of students eager for full-time, in-person learning after months of seeing their teacher only through a screen.
A meticulously decorated classroom replete with tissue-paper flowers, neon-colored learning centers and, of course, socially distanced desks, showcases a first-year teacher’s welcome to her students. Szumski’s classroom glows with the excitement, but it also represents a legacy of teachers before her.
“The feeling of the students running to me with open arms each morning is an experience that is hard to beat after months of working in an empty classroom,” Szumski said. “There has definitely been a positive shift in the culture of our students, where coming to school is no longer viewed as a chore, but as a blessing instead.”
The stack of wipe-off boards in the corner is a gift of Szumski’s first-grade teacher, Mrs. Sullivan, who gifted an entire classroom set. The beanbag reading corner in Szumski’s classroom provides her students comfort, similar to how Szumski’s eighth-grade classroom with Mrs. Atkession became a safe haven when her dad was diagnosed with aggressive brain cancer. The photo at Szumski’s desk of her mom was taken at the wedding of her fifth-grade teacher Mrs. Custis, who became someone Szumski and her family still stay in touch with today.
“These teachers have been a listening ear, my biggest supporters, and most importantly, shaped me into the teacher and woman I am today,” Szumski said.
However, the generosity of one contributor, Bryan Close, stands out.
When Szumski was an Oklahoma State University elementary education senior, ready to graduate in less than one month, she was asked to speak about her experience as an OSU student on a video conference call.
“I still remember logging onto that Zoom call, and it gives me goosebumps,” Szumski said.
Instead of presenting, Szumski was greeted by Close, who told her he was gifting her a scholarship that would allow her to graduate debt-free. It was a complete surprise.
“I have a great appreciation for what teachers do,” Close said on the call. “So many go into the profession and not for monetary gain.”
To put things into perspective, the average starting salary for a teacher in Oklahoma is $36,601, while the average student loan debt for an OSU graduate is $23,790.
“I do not have an education degree, although I did graduate from OSU before your parents were born,” Close told Szumski on the call. “When I went to school, as long as you had a job on campus at a dollar an hour and worked about 50 hours a week, you could struggle through. That’s what I did, and I’m not ashamed of that.”
While not a teacher himself, Close admires the teaching profession greatly.
“At some point in my life, I recognized — and believed — that the remedy for poverty and its social ills was embedded in education,” Close said. “I don’t claim education to be a resolute panacea, but I maintain that it goes a long way toward resolving social issues. For that, we need teachers!”
After the surprise conference call, Szumski was determined to pay it forward. Using her financial freedom from Close’s generosity, she invested in classroom supplies and purchased materials to meet her students’ unique needs. Tiny details reflect Close’s generosity … shelves full of letter tiles, Play-Doh stampers and construction sets; brightly colored chairs for individual tutoring; and a teacher’s dream: a fully-stocked supply cabinet of tissues, pencils and hand sanitizer.
“The expense that comes with being a first-year teacher trying to build your classroom is a lot, and things are even harder during a pandemic,” Szumski said. “I was able to create the classroom I always dreamed about, so my students and I could make up for precious lost time.”
When Szumski sat alone in her classroom while teaching virtually, the empty room’s decorations inspired her to persevere, reminding her of the legacy of her own childhood teachers, Mrs. Sullivan, Mrs. Atkession and Mrs. Custis. Now, the generosity of Close provides her students with exciting school supplies to create precious memories in their final weeks of school.
"Teaching during this pandemic has definitely been bittersweet,” Szumski said. “We will be forever grateful for each minute we get to spend with each other. I am proud of our school community’s adaptability and resiliency.”
Would you like to support aspiring teachers like Szumski? The Educating Forward scholarship campaign provides scholarships to OSU education majors, helping them fulfill their teaching dreams. In turn, a gift of any amount can be made in a teacher’s honor, helping you celebrate the generations of teachers who have made a difference in your life. Together, we can make a difference.