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Teacher of the Year enjoys life in a classroom

In January, Cheryl Sinks, 37, a fourth-grade teacher at Frontier Elementary School in Largo, was named Pinellas County Teacher of the Year. It is no small accomplishment. The application process is grueling and involves visits to the classroom by outside educators and parents. Sinks now goes on to regional competition and, if she is successful there, the state contest.

I wondered what kind of dedication it takes to win such an honor. Sinks, who started teaching in 1982, graciously agreed to a question and answer session during a break in her teaching day. Times readers will learn much about Pinellas County schools by reading what their Teacher of the Year has to say.

_ Jack Reed, North Pinellas editor of editorials

Q: When did you know you wanted to be a teacher?

A: I was brought up in a home where I always saw my parents preparing for Sunday school lessons. Then I had some good experiences in my elementary school years. As a small child, I had some reading problems and my teacher was able to use methods so I could have a positive educational experience.

I admired teachers that I saw outside of school. They always were so enthusiastic about what they were doing. You could tell that they had a love and a dedication to their job that I didn't see in a lot of other people. When I was looking for a career, I wanted to find one where I could really make a difference and teaching was just the natural selection for that.

In college, I was going to work with high school students. As I started working with high school students, I realized I could have more of an effect with the elementary school age because that's where they need some positive role models.

Q: What does it take to be Teacher of the Year?

A: That's a tough one. I guess I really don't see myself as a lot different than a lot of the other teachers. I think one thing is setting high goals for yourself and for your students. One thing that sets me apart, I think, is that I'm continually changing. If one way of teaching doesn't meet the needs of my students then I try another means. Another thing that may set me apart is that I look for any resource that I can, not just the textbooks they give us. I'm the queen of 1-800 numbers; if there's something free, I call for it.

I do a lesson on Alaska, so I call Alaska for ice worms (worms that live on glaciers) and things like that, anything to make it interesting for the kids.

Q: One parent praised you for using "real world materials" in our classroom. Can you explain what that is?

A: Nowadays children are not passive; they're very active so they need hands-on experiences with things they can relate to in the real world. Today, we're doing a Florida lesson so we're reading three newspaper articles. We're relating them to what is happening in our community right now. I don't look at just preparing (pupils) for this year. I look at the skills I can instill in them that are going to last them throughout their lifetime.

Q: Have you changed the way you teach?

A: I started out teaching a certain way, probably very traditional. Within the last several years, as I saw my students change, I felt a real need to change my teaching style. Teachers are going to have to go to the integrated curriculum, bringing all subject matters together and making it connect. I do that. I give my parents a syllabus at the beginning of the year of what things we are going to cover so I am accountable to them. They can see I really put planning into it.

Q: How many hours a day do you spend at your job?

A: (Laughs) My parents say I don't even get minimum wage. I try to get here by 7 a.m. and I leave late, 5:30 p.m. (She also works at home.) That's another thing, the time that it takes anymore. We're not just meeting curriculum needs; we're meeting the social, the emotional, so many more needs today than educators in the past.

Q: Do you feel like you have changed some children's lives?

A: I think I have. I didn't realize until I became Teacher of the Year this year how many lives I have changed. I had a little girl (now in middle school) write me a letter in the last few weeks. She told me that I had introduced her to the Macintosh computer; I had taught her everything she knows about writing. For the rest of her education, she told me, every time she publishes a story, she is going to publish two, one for me and one for her to keep. That means more than any award or recognition that I can get, to realize I can have that impact on that child.

Q: How do you get a child's attention and keep it?

A: I never give up. I have great determination. I will continually look for new ways to reach them, whatever method it takes. If it takes using technology, if it takes using a tape recorder, whatever it takes. Also to find what they are interested in and for me to take an interest in that. Nowadays it is a challenge to motivate children.

Q: Has society changed?

A: Absolutely, and that has had a tremendous impact on education.

Q: Is it fair to put that responsibility on teachers?

A: We all have to shoulder that responsibility. It really does take a community to raise a child. I may not be an expert in one field, but the community may be able to help me. The parents have to be brought into the educational process. I don't think it's fair to put all the blame on educators.

Q: One way we can value education is to support the schools. Is there always enough money available for the materials you need in the classroom?

A: I feel like I'm very fortunate to be a part of Frontier Elementary School. We are a prototype school; we go 210 days, different from the traditional 180 days. Because we are part of this school, the materials are here. The materials and money are not really what make education. (Laughs) I know a lot of people will differ with me on that. There are so many good resources out there that are free, but it does take time, it does take energy.

Q: Where do you see your teaching career leading you?

A: It's understood a lot of times that when you receive an honor like this you're going to move up to administration. I really don't have that desire. I really believe that my talent needs to be used in the classroom. That is where I plan to stay because that is where I can make a major impact on my students.

Q: What is your greatest frustration as a teacher?

A: I look at them as challenges. My passion or my heart is to meet the needs of the family because that impacts how a child will be successful in the classroom. I believe in communication with parents. When I feel that that is not there, then that is a real challenge for me.

Time for quality curriculum planning is a real challenge. It's not going to change. That is a frustration (teachers) feel. Often during our planning time we have to be on the phone. I believe good teaching is good planning. It takes a number of hours to be able to plan the year where the students are able to make connections and have real life experiences.

Q: Do you have a message you would like to deliver to Pinellas County residents about their schools?

A: Education has changed, yet we are still making a difference in the lives of children. You hear a lot of negative things going on, but if (residents) would take the time to volunteer in the schools, visit the schools in Pinellas County, they would be amazed at the quality teaching.

There is nothing perfect in society. A lot of times education has gotten a bad rap, but there are a lot of wonderful things going on.

Teaching used to be a career that people looked up to. We need to look at the reputation of teachers now. We have a lot of really quality teachers in Pinellas County. There needs to be more recognition of teachers and what they do. The things that have meant the most to me are the parents who have written me a note. Parents don't know how much that means, just saying a simple "thank you."