A Detroit group named her teacher of the year. Here’s how Sandra Limmer connects with her students

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Sandra Limmer’s students recognize a good teacher when they see one, and that’s why they nominated her for the Goodfellows “Teacher of the Year” award this year.

So when a gaggle of television cameras, reporters and representatives from the Goodfellows Foundation bustled into their classroom Monday morning, the fourth-graders were all smiles.

Limmer has been a teacher in Detroit’s main district for 20 years. Her student, Serenity McIntee, nominated her for the award. She was chosen out of 1,000 other applicants in the district.

“My teacher is amazing; she makes learning fun,” McIntee wrote. “She makes me happy and laugh when I’m sad. She helps us when we need help. When we do tests, she tries to make us concentrate. She’s the best teacher anyone can ask for. She tells us to try our best even if it’s hard. She’s so special to me, she cares for me. She’s also there for me if I have problems.”

Limmer is an English and language arts teacher at Bennett Elementary in Southwest Detroit.

“I’m very fortunate to be at Bennett,” she said. “It’s one of the most amazing schools I’ve ever worked at in the district. It’s kind of like an all around win-win in this building. Everybody has fun, and that’s huge in education. We’ve got to make learning as fun as we can.”

Chalkbeat sat down with Limmer after she won to talk about teaching and her 20-year career.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I had a very special teacher in second grade that I adored. She really made me want to become a teacher. I played school with my sister when I was little, and as time went on and I entered college, it’s just the path I chose. I became connected to Detroit through the end of my coursework with the Comer School Project and I worked at a Detroit public school. And I just had a draw to it every since. I was determined to work in Detroit.

How do you get to know your students?

A big part of being a successful teacher is connecting with your students. I know that because when I first started teaching in Detroit I was only 24. My first year was a very rough year, and it was like survival, you know? Sink or swim. And I chose to swim.

I started learning different strategies with my kids and trying to get to know them. The biggest thing is getting to know them personally; their families, their hobbies, what they like, things that you can relate to them on. In order to be successful, you’ve got to be able to relate to them personally. I think, over time, I’ve really learned to read my kids.

I look for different things that I can relate to them on, and then I always try to get their parents on board. Because once they know that I have a relationship with their parents as well, then it becomes really successful.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

We’ve been finishing a wonderful chapter book based on ratifying the 19th Amendment. This book has really opened the kids’ eyes, and my eyes, to differences among people. The hardships and struggles that people had to overcome, the history, to see where we are today and how much farther we need to go.

And what we need to do as people in the world to create peace, to try to be more kind, to show empathy. It, so far, has been one of the best things that I’ve taught this year. It’s based on a new curriculum, and it’s a struggle, but finally I’m getting to know it and like it. I think it’s really helped the students understand the struggle.

I also just love the looks on their faces when they learned something new or when they’re shocked. It’s a teaching moment to say. “hey, that’s how it was back then, and we don’t do that anymore.”

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

I love my technology. There’s so many things that I can pull from history, images, things that help the kids get a better visualization. We use the smart boards in combination with a laptop.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

Because I’m in southwest, there’s so much on immigration.

Some of the kids have to cross a bridge that usually has a homeless man that sits there. The students have to pass him every day and understand that he has different struggles, but he still deserves empathy and kindness. There are many families who are devastated because they’re in the process of being deported.

I think the things that we’re learning in this book also affect us in the community because we see it. Children see it on the way to school, and they see on their way home from school.

What part of your job is most difficult?

To meet all the needs of every student is a struggle. Bennett has a lot of resources. But being able to connect and give all those resources to one child while you have another 29 sitting there waiting for you — there’s just not enough time in a day. We don’t get preps every day, and some days we work from the time we get here, and I’m here an hour early, until the end of the school day except for the lunch break. I think time is a big issue.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

I never imagined that I would multitask so much. I’ve always been an organized person, I’m a planner. You think, coming into teaching, you’re going to come into this beautiful classroom, and you’ve got a plan, and you’ve mapped out the day, and it’s going to go perfect. In reality, so many things pop up, and you multitask until you get the job done.  With experience and time, it gets better.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

“Work smarter, not harder.” I took my master’s classes, and one of the courses was basically all about that. It talked about teacher burnout, and it was probably the best advice you can get. How can I accomplish this goal? How do I get it done? What’s the easiest way for me to do it? You really just have to think things through.

Don’t overwork yourself. There’s a lot of ways to get things done without burning out.