An empathetic heart makes Summerlin the top teacher in Kannapolis
By Sarah Campbell
KANNAPOLIS - It's not hard for students to get a hold of Sandy Summerlin outside of the classroom.
"They have my cell and home phone numbers and I tell them to call me," the second-grade teacher at Woodrow Wilson Elementary said.
And she doesn't limit calls to emergencies.
"If a kid has a question or there's no one to read to at night, they can call and read to me," Summerlin said. "I've got students who I had three years ago who still call me for homework help, and I welcome that. I love talking to them."
Summerlin said she also encourages parents to give her a ring after hours.
"I was a working mom," she said. "I remember what it was like to try to communicate with teachers when I was at the plant from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. some days. It was hard to come to a conference, it was difficult to go on field trips.
"I have a husband, so I can only imagine what it's like for single parents."
That empathy made Summerlin a standout choice for the Kannapolis City school system's Teacher of the Year.
"Empathy is one of Sandy's strongest characteristics as a teacher and as a person," Woodrow Wilson Principal David Fleischmann said during the annual awards breakfast hosted Tuesday by SunTrust Bank. "She absolutely cares for and attempts to meet every need of every student in her classroom."
Summerlin said being accessible helps foster a good bond.
"I feel that by building strong relationships with my students and their families, I am leaving them with a positive image of public education," she said. "I make sure my students know from day one that I not only want them to be successful, but I believe they can be successful."
Each day in Summerlin's classroom begins with an assignment written on the whiteboard at the front of the room. At the end are two words, "Love you."
"Those children have to know that you love them - not like them, love them and care for them - before you can teach them anything," she said. "Even if I don't say the words, at least they've seen them and know that I do love them."
Fleischmann said in his 33 years as an educator he's never been more impressed with a teacher than he has been with Summerlin.
"She is creative and dynamic and uses every gift she has been granted to ensure that every child in her classroom is loved, taught, challenged and successful," he said.
Businesswoman turned teacher
Summerlin worked in quality control at a printing company in Charlotte before she took a job as a teacher assistant at Woodrow Wilson.
Chip Buckwell, now principal of Kannapolis Middle, offered Summerlin the gig after she arrived late to her son's baseball game, again.
"My son Wes hit a triple and Chip told me I had just missed it," she said. "I said I was so tired of missing my sons' lives because of my job and he said 'Come be a teacher assistant for me.' So, I turned in my notice that week."
Transitioning from the business world to the classroom was a learning curve, but one that was worth it.
"Before, my kids lived in day care while I worked 60 and 70 hours a week," she said. "By being a teacher assistant I had my afternoons with them, I had summers off with them, I had holidays.
"So even though it was a huge cut in pay, my quality of life was so much better."
After a push from former superintendent Dr. Jo Anne Byerly, Summerlin earned her bachelor's degree in elementary education from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
"I kind of laughed it off because I never thought of myself as a teacher, never," she said. "But it kind of planted a seed and I applied for a scholarship that the state has for teachers who want to go get their degree in education."
She's been teaching now for five years.
"Every child needs a teacher like Sandy Summerlin," Superintendent Dr. Pam Cain said. "Her example of dedication to every student and her commitment to family involvement are exactly what we want for all our students and for public education in general."
Summerlin will go on to compete for regional Teacher of the Year honors. She will also receive $1,000 from SunTrust Bank, which sponsors the Gold Star Teacher of the Year program in Kannapolis.
Other top teachers
Sarah Chapman and Ingrid Overcash tied for the Teacher of the Year runner-up spot.
Chapman works with autistic students at Shady Brook Elementary.
Overcash, who has taught first and third grades, is transitioning to a new role as Forest Park Elementary's ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teacher.
Both women will receive $300 from SunTrust.
SunTrust will also provide $100 to the following nominees:
• Alison Augustson, Kannapolis Intermediate
• Marla Guerity, Jackson Park Elementary
• Marty Lineberger, Fred L. Wilson Elementary
• Jeremy Peterson, A.L. Brown High School
• Kristen Weber, Kannapolis Middle
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.