MSU alum named 2022 Elementary Teacher of the Year

May 3, 2022

Elementary teacher and MSU alumna Rebecca Sandee has a bar she hopes to reach for her students: Can she create a “peak moment” for them? Can she energize them with exciting, important, rich learning experiences? Can she embed nature into learning, getting out into the world and exploring what the local community and state has to offer?

Sandee recently had a peak moment herself: She was named the 2022 Elementary Teacher of the Year by the Michigan Science Teachers Association.

Rebecca Sandee (courtesy photo)

“I was in pure shock to find out that I had won the award. To be honest, I still am,” Sandee said in an article by the White Lake Beacon.

She teaches first and second graders in one classroom in Central Elementary School, part of the Reeths-Puffer School District in Michigan. The setup of the classroom is unique—in fact, it’s the only multigrade classroom in the district—but Sandee likes it that way: she learns a lot from her students, and they learn a lot from each other.

The great outdoors

It is not unusual to find Sandee and her class exploring nature, tapping into Sandee’s love of project-based and place-based learning. Getting out of the classroom opens to a world of wonder, learning about birds, stars, science and history, among many other topics.

Prior to COVID-19, Sandee took her students on a camping trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes, with activities based around topics they had learned throughout the year. They went to a piping plover nesting site (the birds are endangered, but park rangers supported the students in looking at the protected nests). While at a scenic overlook, Sandee—who is a member of the Ojibwe tribe—read “The Legend of the Sleeping Bear.” It was, as she puts it, a “dream come true” to experience a moment like that with her students. There are hopes to recreate the trip in the coming years.

Sandee reads to her students in her outdoor classroom (courtesy photo).

Sandee’s students also engage in learning closer to home. Her students regularly help pick out service projects that not only support their learning, but also their community. For example, the class learned that at Muskegon’s homeless shelters, people cannot stay during the day, even during the winter. So, the class learned to knit, and then knit hats to provide to local shelters. And when trees were being cut down to install a zip line, the class planted new trees at a state park to make up for trees that were being cut down.

Her relentless effort for creating magical, purposeful moments in learning is connected to Sandee’s belief in the profession.

No one can effect societal change more than teachers. This is the most important job in the world. We’re affecting people’s lives! Tomorrow sits in my classroom every day.

Rebecca Sandee

Spartans Will.

Shortly after Sandee arrived at MSU, she decided she wanted to be a teacher—due, in large part, to an influential teacher she had had during high school. (When Sandee received the award from MSTA at a ceremony in January 2022, she reached out to her old teacher and brought him along as an honored guest.)

Receiving word that she had been accepted into MSU’s Teacher Preparation Program was one of the “most joyous moments of [her] life.” She graduated in 2006 and earned her teaching certificate in 2007.

What she learned in the program remains influential in her teaching today.

“Because of MSU, I’m really mindful of diversity, equity and inclusion,” Sandee said. “I try to honor where everyone is on their path. From those very first classes, that’s what we were talking about.”

And yes, Sandee agrees the last few years of teaching have been challenging. The pandemic was a lot for teachers and learners. Yet, echoes from her classes at MSU guide her feelings today. At a recent staff meeting, Sandee quoted a professor who, during one of Sandee’s very first classes in the Teacher Preparation Program, expressed what a difficult job teaching was.

“You could tell in her voice that this was important. And then she said: ‘But we’re going to get you ready.’ Then she let us fly,” Sandee remembers. “I shared that with my coworkers [recently] to say: There’s no more noble work that can be done, especially now. Our young learners need us more than ever.”