When it comes to celebrating academic excellence, the middle-school teachers at Southern Delaware School of the Arts are having a banner year. Teacher of the Year is an annual honor, and Amanda Swain was partway through her tenure as SDSA’s 2020-2021 honoree when Erin Bullock was named the 2021-2022 winner.
When they’re not working together in the classroom, they’re likely on a Zoom call with students, in a staff team meeting or texting each other ideas late at night. Bullock teaches special education, and Swain does English Language Arts (ELA). They both teach grades 7 and 8.
“I work with a great group, and they back me, and I back them,” said Bullock, who accompanies her students to the different core classrooms. “Especially between last year and this year, it’s definitely a team throughout this pandemic. We all need each other.”
“It has to be a community. It has to be a team effort,” Swain agreed. “It has to be everybody working for what’s best for students.”
Swain has taught since 1995, including about 12 years at SDSA. Students and staff call her classroom a safe space.
“She is phenomenal,” said Principal Travis Bower, always fascinated by the classes that he witnesses, from discussions around archaic language to music inspired by the Holocaust Museum. “She brings it to life, which is amazing. I can’t speak highly enough of her, because she is the mama bear of the middle school. She looks out for every single student in the school.”
After 19 years in education, Bullock is “an outstanding example of what it means to be a dedicated teacher. She clearly makes her students for top priority and constantly strives to have her students succeed and feel safe and supported,” wrote one nominator. “She endeavors to instill the love and desire of learning while educating the whole child.”
Her colleagues complimented her “balance of grace, compassion, insight and firmness that takes on a unique form for each student she works with.”
Both teachers graduated from Indian River School District. They are parents, team players and leaders within their school.
SDSA is not a performing arts school, but infuses the arts into the regular academic curriculum. And that creativity spills forth, whether students are rocking on stage, sewing costumes or designing sets.
“We all believe that students learn through the arts. … There are so many different ways that kids can access their creativity and learn better when they are given those opportunities,” said Swain.
“And watching some of these kids on stage is just mind-blowing!” Bullock exclaimed. “Even some of these little ones. They’ve got it going on!”
Both feel lucky to be at SDSA, surrounded by their team and the arts.
“I love teaching. I can’t imagine not doing that,” said Bullock.
“I would be teaching no matter where I was,” said Swain, so it feels like a bonus to work at “the best possible school for kids to learn and explore.”
And as the pandemic pushed the U.S. to remote learning last spring and hybrid learning last autumn, the SDSA staff have shown their dedication and creativity. Individually, teachers are working all hours (even pulling an all-nighter or two) to keep up with students, especially those who don’t have internet access during the traditional 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. school day.
This year, education’s big challenges “weren’t actually different — they just took on a different form,” said Bullock. It was still “establishing relationships, keeping arts at the forefront of what we did, and the mental health piece,” which has been the biggest challenge for some time now, “and just having the resources to address what kids need. It didn’t change, it just shifted location.”
Meanwhile, staff are still working to help students learn, maintain or thrive — but over a video conference, or while wearing masks.
“Just getting into talking, to advocate for themselves… We’ve not heard some of these kids all year long, and some of them have not turned the cameras on,” Bullock said.
And both teachers live in a place where internet connectivity is a challenge. That was especially hard in 2020, when everyone was homebound.
Not only are the staff constantly in communication but “Teachers really want to work with families in the community for what’s best for kids,” Swain said.
Bullock agreed: “We want to be one whole team. What’s that saying? ‘It takes a village to raise a child’? It really does!”