Princeton – Princeton School District’s 2015-2016 teacher of the year, third-grade teacher Sara Dokken, said she was surprised by the peer-decided honor when the young Tiger Pride News crew at the Intermediate School marched into her classroom with flowers and a microphone for an impromptu interview.
Though that scene unfolded in 2015, Dokken and five other Princeton teachers received their honors at a recent Leadership in Education Excellence Awards banquet. Dokken is humbled by the award and credits her success to teamwork.
Each school names one teacher of the year and then one of those teachers is named as the districtwide teacher of the year. Other teachers who were honored at their respective schools are Terri Lorentz from the family center, Jeff Beckers from the primary school, Julie McClure from the middle school and Lori Johnstone from the high school.
“This is my 19th year and I’ve been in third grade the whole time,” Dokken said. “I love it.”
She said the Princeton teaching job was her first after graduating from University of Wisconsin-River Falls with a teaching degree and a minor in math. She is married to Tim, and they have two children: one in the sixth grade and one in the ninth grade.
Much like her kids are attending a new school this year, Dokken is the teacher who welcomes new students to the intermediate school for grades three through five. She said they are typically a bit anxious and apprehensive but usually are settled in and comfortable with the routine by the Christmas break.
“I enjoy the kids’ energy,” she said.
Dokken said they’re at a good age and are willing to try new things such as setting goals. She said while some are a little intimidated by the goal setting and tasks at first, they get a thrill out of reaching a goal and then want to set and reach more goals. She communicates that the lessons they’re learning now will serve them throughout the rest of their lives.
She breaks students up into small work groups for math lessons and study, which helps them grasp the concepts. Dokken encourages the kids when they’re frustrated about learning; she lets them know that just because they can’t do something today does not mean they never will.
As for her teaching techniques, Dokken said, “You try to individualize as much as you can,” and look for each student’s strong and weak points to use as building blocks.
Dokken focuses on reading skills, too, since her students are at a critical age for developing them. She strives to have them leave the third grade with a love of and strong ability for reading.
Asked what has changed during her nearly two decades in teaching, Dokken said, “I would say technology is probably the biggest thing.”
She started out using a chalkboard and now uses a diverse smartboard. At first she didn’t know exactly what to do with it, but now she can’t imagine life without it. Dokken smiles about one day when the board wasn’t working and the children figured they’d have a break. Their teacher reassured them that she had taught before smartboards were in classrooms and she would adapt the lessons.
This year the new technological addition is iPads for each student, which Dokken said allows them to better work at their own pace. She also said sound systems and microphones were not used when she started teaching, but she finds them helpful.
The teacher said the thing she probably loves best about her job is seeing the growth in each student from the beginning of the year to the end. And, she said the intermediate school has fun through its Tiger Pride program, end-of-year carnival and other activities.
School social worker Lynn Nettifee and fellow teachers Tracy Pidde, Ryan Rysavy and Diane Greenwood nominated Dokken and used the word “amazing.” The nomination states that Dokken inspires them with her willingness to try it another way and how she eloquently shares concern and stays positive even when that is not always the easiest thing to do.
Her peers called her “very organized” and said she keeps others on track and is a fearless leader, tireless helper and sharer of ideas. They said, “Sara is also always there for us when we need to talk about ways to improve our teaching or find a way to better deal with students.”