There’s no question in Sara Russell’s mind. The future of education in Iowa is going to be bright.

Russell has a unique perspective to arrive at such a conclusion. As the outgoing 2022 Iowa Teacher of the Year, she’s traveled across the state meeting educators. Her favorite was meeting with students in teacher preparation classes.

“It was just so rewarding to work with our future teachers who will be heading into the classroom within the next year or two,” she said. “For me, it was awesome to see that we have such an incredible future in education in Iowa. It makes me, as an educator, feel hopeful.”

It’s been a busy year for Russell. She presented at a number of different conferences, including the Iowa BEST and the Emerging Educators Academy. She also was the speaker at the convocation at the University of Iowa’s REACH Program. All the while, she was racking up thousands of miles driving across the state.

And then there was Space Camp, in which Teachers of the Year from across the country partook in activities at the Huntsville, Ala., facility. There was one particular challenge for Russell: an anti-gravity machine.

“I was afraid it would make me feel ill,” Russell said. “But for me this year, it was about trying new things. I gave it a try and it was really fun. The whole year was about stepping outside my comfort zone.”

Russell’s travels to Iowa’s colleges and universities would occasionally yield surprises.

“I was running into so many students I had taught at Pleasant Valley High School,” she said. “Some were education majors, but many just saw announcements that I would be visiting and made a point to stop by where I was speaking to say hi. Every time I saw a familiar face from home, it just made me smile.”

Russell had plenty of aha moments during her tenure.

“One of my biggest takeaways is that if we want education to stay strong, we need to encourage our students to be teachers,” she said. “We need to be advocates for our own career.”

Russell said Sioux City’s career academy – which exposes high school students to careers including education – is a great tool for encouraging students to become teachers.

Perhaps most important are the new friends Russell has made over the last year, including her fellow state and national Teachers of the Year.

“It’s wonderful to collaborate with people, not just those in the state but outside the state,” she said. “It is really fun to say, ‘how is your state doing this?’ You can learn so much.”

As Russell contemplates the end of her tenure as Iowa Teacher of the Year, she’s reflective of her travels around the state.

“When I was going around the state, I saw that we are doing so many things so well,” she said. “Iowa’s teachers are amazing, the schools are strong and our students are receiving amazing educations.”

Russell will return to Pleasant Valley High School in the fall as a social studies teacher. But this time, there will be something different in the building – her twin sons Gavin and Aiden.

“My twin sons will be in the high school with me, so the three of us will be under one roof,” she said, laughing. “They will be freshmen. One could end up in my class – who knows? Believe it or not, we are looking forward to it. Contact me in a few months and I might be thinking differently.”

Any advice for incoming 2023 Iowa Teacher of the Year Krystal Colbert?

“She is just going to be amazing,” Russell said. “There is no wrong way to be Teacher of the Year. You need to tap into your passions and make the year your own. She’s going to be great. I am excited to see where she goes with everything next year.”

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