Michigan’s newest Teacher of the Year keeps “big rocks” glued to the back of her cell phone.
Not those kind of rocks. The three typed reminders stuck on her phone represent her top priorities as an educator – their metaphorical name taken from the work of author Stephen Covey, known for his best-selling self-help book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
MEA member Laura Chang, a second grade teacher at Sunset Lake Elementary School in Vicksburg, was honored Friday morning as the 2018-19 Michigan Teacher of the Year at a surprise assembly attended by officials from the Michigan Department of Education (MDE), family members, and cheering students and staff at her school.
“I was shocked,” Chang said, wiping away tears at a cake and punch reception following the ceremony. “I’m just a second grade teacher, like everyone else in the building who’s working hard and passionately for kids.”
Chang is described as a classroom teacher who principals rely upon, parents lobby for, colleagues admire, and students love. She serves as a mentor teacher in her district and also teaches pre-service educators part-time at Western Michigan University.
After 18 years as an educator in Vicksburg, south of Kalamazoo, Chang is guided by a big-picture view of her role and a whole-child philosophy encompassed in those three priorities she looks at every day on the back of her phone.
“We’ve got to keep the big things big,” she said, referring to the “big rocks” metaphor for staying focused on the most important reasons for teaching.
“It’s easy to fall into the pressure of the race and the rush. Sometimes we just need to take a breath and realize it’s OK if I don’t get through all of the content. It’s OK. I’m going to look at my kids’ data and start where they are and move forward from there.”
Her first “big rock” priority is to create kind, collaborative, contributing members of the community, she said. Everyone has a leadership role but also works with others to accomplish goals. The class sets academic and behavioral goals and monitors progress.
“And if we fall short, we examine that as a group,” she said.
Chang is not alone in that mission. The entire Sunset Lake staff is in the second year of implementing the “Leader in Me” model, based on Covey’s work. The initiative aims to equip students to be 21st-Century leaders.
Five years ago, Sunset Lake was labeled a “Focus School” by the state, one step above the most struggling “priority” status. Three years of work in shifting the school’s culture and getting everyone pulling in the same direction has paid off with improved student achievement, said Principal Amie McCaw.
“Our mission is we’re lifelong learners, lifelong leaders – not just our kids, but the adults too,” McCaw said. “It’s not a thing we’re doing to the kids. We’re building each other up.”
Chang plays an integral role on the team leading change in the building, and she works as the district’s technology integration leader, but most importantly she inspires others as a joyful educator who “serves from the heart,” according to McCaw.
Chang’s second “big rock” is to inspire kids to be lifelong learners by making lessons fun, exciting, hands-on, and relevant, she said. “It’s so important that students understand the ‘why’ and the big picture of what we’re learning and how it will help them later in their life.”
Empowering students to stand up for one another is her third “big rock.” Children in her class role-play scenarios for how to respond if a schoolmate is being mistreated. “Kids don’t always learn those socio-emotional lessons at home, and it’s so important to creating a community.”
Mistakes are celebrated in her classroom, because she wants students to feel safe, valued, and loved, Chang said. “We always say, ‘Mistakes are expected, inspected and respected.’ Building classroom community is the most important thing we do.”
Chang was inspired to be an educator growing up with a father who worked as a math and science teacher for many years in Frankenmuth. Her parents were on hand for Friday’s ceremony, and her dad – Gary Bruns – said he knew she would be a teacher after watching her skillfully manage three young children as a 12-year-old babysitter.
“I knew she’d be good, but I didn’t think she’d be this good!” he quipped.
Chang previously worked as a literacy consultant in the district, coaching other teachers on strategies for teaching reading. She still teaches an undergraduate course at WMU showing secondary-level content area teachers how to incorporate literacy work in their classrooms.
Many of the students are skeptical at first, and Chang said it’s fun to watch their ideas evolve as they begin to understand the connection between their subject matter – high school physics or math, for example – and literacy.
“We need to understand how our students come to us as readers, and look at how we can embed language arts in every subject area,” Chang said. “We’re all teachers of reading.”
Chang returned to the classroom after spending several years in the coaching position, because “I missed the kids terribly.”
“I feel like sometimes we’re given the opportunity to do things only to find out where we’re truly meant to be,” she said.
As Michigan Teacher of the Year, Chang will serve as a voice of educators at monthly State Board of Education meetings, and she will chair the Michigan Teacher Leadership Advisory Committee, ensuring that educators’ voices are heard on policy issues.
Teachers of the Year from all 50 states also attend various events together throughout the year, including a trip to Washington, D.C. and to Space Camp at Alabama Space Academy for Educators.
Last year’s Michigan Teacher of the Year, Kentwood Public Schools math teacher Luke Wilcox, traveled to Vicksburg to lend advice and encouragement to Chang.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Wilcox told her, adding that he grew more as a teacher and leader in the past year than ever before. “You were chosen for a reason, and you’re going to use your voice to carry forward a message that really matters.”