Team USA

Teaching makes me a better athlete, says Memphis educator bound for the Olympics

PHOTO: Carter Malone Group
Sable Otey, a 31-year-old physical education teacher for Shelby County Schools in Memphis, is a member of the U.S. bobsled team at the Winter Olympics in South Korea.

Sable Otey is both a teacher and an athlete, striking a synergy that motivates her students as well as herself.

And soon, the physical education teacher from Memphis will head to South Korea to support her teammates competing in the Olympics as a member of the U.S. bobsledding team.

Perseverance, discipline, hard work, and being a lifelong learner — they’re qualities that Otey has developed in both endeavors and now seeks to pass along to her students at Lowrance K-8.

But her path to international competition started in impoverished circumstances, similar to that of many of her students.

Otey grew up in Memphis’ Binghamton neighborhood, where she was raised by a grandmother who struggled to make ends meet. Her track and field coach at East High School, Danny Young, often dropped off food with her family when money was low. And her high school Spanish teacher, Malika Collins, was so influential in Otey’s life that she now calls Collins her godmother.

“She saw that this girl struggling; she saw my grandma, a single mom, working hard. She saw this girl needs some help; this girl needs some guidance,” said Otey, who graduated from East in 2005. “She’s always motivating. She’s always inspiring. … I don’t know what I would have done without her.”

Otey went on to become a track and field star at George Mason University in Virginia and was on track to compete in the 2012 Olympics when she became pregnant with her son. In 2015, her Olympic dreams were rekindled when a friend encouraged her to try out for the U.S. Olympic bobsledding team. Now a member of the U.S. team, she fell short of qualifying for the top spots to compete in the 2018 Games, but decided to travel to South Korea anyway to support her teammates.

Otey, 31, spoke with Chalkbeat about how teaching has influenced her as an athlete and how she’s sharing Olympic dreams with her students.

What’s your typical day like?

It’s a lot of work. The support of the school, the support of the principal does help; it plays a major role. It’s tough, though. Most lunch breaks I take a nap because I’m tired from training. I train before work and then I teach, take a nap at lunch, and then train after work and pick my son up and try and spend time with my family. The next day, I start the same thing over again. I have a plan, a daily plan, and I just try to get everything done on my plan. It’s exhausting, but you’re motivated so you find your “why” and keep pushing because of that.

So, what is your “why”?

My thing was I was trying to find my purpose. I told my goddad, who is a pastor, “What’s my purpose?” He said, “You’re living it!” But I realized I have been an inspiration to so many people, so many kids, so many adults even in my community. Just coming from Binghamton being told some of the things that some of the kids are being told now that they’re not going to be anything. They’re not going to get a college degree. I’ve overcome all of those obstacles. I have a master’s degree in education. I’m a world-class athlete, wife, and a mother. I’ve overcome so many barriers.

I think it’s my job to do that because it’s a village. Back when villages were raising people, a village actually raised me: my principals, my teachers, people in my community. All of those people helped me become who I am today. I don’t know my biological dad. My goddad stepped in and has taken care of me, treating me like one of his own kids. My grandma took care of me because my mom had me when she was 15. My mom was around, but my mom was young, so my grandma took on that duty.

I deal with a lot of kids and they explain their issues to me. So, I said the same stuff you’re going through, I went through the same thing. And had I let my circumstances determine who I was going to be or had I let those situations put those limitations on my life, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

How has your school been involved in your Olympic pursuits?

PHOTO: Courtesy of Sable Otey
Otey pushes several students in a makeshift bobsled.

I get so much energy from the kids. They’re so excited about this. They’ll say, “What’s our workout today, coach?” They’re excited to be in P.E. Most kids these days, they don’t want to be in P.E. They don’t want to sweat their hair out; they don’t want to mess up anything, mess their clothes up. They give me a great deal of motivation, just to talk to these kids and build personal relationships with these kids.

I keep them up to speed with everything. They’re really into the actual training so they always ask me so many questions about my workout and what they can do. But the kids are still growing and they’re not ready to do weightlifting training, so I show them alternative things they can do instead of lifting weights. And then I show them videos of what it is that I do. (Otey plans to take short videos to send to her students while she is overseas.)

What are some of the things about being a teacher that have made you a better athlete, or vice versa?

PHOTO: Courtesy of Sable Otey

Perseverance both ways. Being a teacher, pressing through no matter what. No matter all the adversities that I face, just constantly pressing through. And being able to share that with the kids. When you can actually talk to them and actually relate to them as a real person they take well to that. They’re excited to see you, they’re excited to listen and actually do what the lesson requires. So, it just kind of piggybacks off of one another. I learn from both aspects as a teacher and a world-class athlete because I was never the best athlete. I’ve always had to work to get there. My cousin wouldn’t even work that hard at practice and then go to a track meet and she’d be great. For me, I had to work three times as hard to get to that level and maintain. A lot of times I got to places because my coach saw my work ethic. He saw how hard I tried and how dedicated I was. And I tell that to my kids too. You might not even be the best, but we see you if you’re actually trying. We’re not going to overlook that. And people in the real world will see that. They see this person is a hard worker. He’s coachable. He’s going to try his best and give you 110 percent. You’re not going to get overlooked because you’re not a Michael Jordan.

In this sport, I had to learn to be a student again. I’ve always been in a situation where people asked me for help. And for me to go to this sport, I had to learn to humble myself a little bit and actually listen. I realized you have to be coachable as an adult, as an athlete. This translates over to the real world as well. It’s not just inside of a classroom.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Sable Otey
Sable Otey practices with the U.S. Olympic bobsledding team.

Correction: Feb. 23, 2018: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that Otey is an alternate on the U.S. Olympic bobsledding team. She did not make the Olympic team but is a member of the U.S. national team and traveled to South Korea to support her teammates.

Top teacher

Former Tennessee teacher of the year wins prestigious national award

Cicely Woodard, an eighth-grade math teacher in Franklin, receives the 2019 NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence. (Photo courtesy of NEA)

Former Tennessee teacher of the year Cicely Woodard has received the nation’s highest teaching honor through its largest teacher organization.

The eighth-grade math educator in Franklin accepted the Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence from the NEA Foundation. The honor, which includes a $25,000 prize, was presented Friday at a gala in Washington, D.C.

“Teaching can be time-consuming, challenging, and sometimes overwhelming,” said Woodard. “But the impact that we make on the lives of students — and that they make on us — is powerful, life-changing, and enduring.”

A graduate of Central High School in Memphis, Woodard has been a teacher since 2003. She taught in Nashville public schools when she was named Tennessee’s top teacher in 2018 and has since moved to Franklin Special School District in Williamson County, south of Nashville, where she teaches at Freedom Middle School.

Woodard was among 46 educators nominated for the NEA Foundation award by their state education associations and was one of five finalists who received the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence, which carries an additional $10,000 prize. The Member Benefits Award winner was announced at the finale of the gala attended by 900 people.

“Cicely has been selected for this award by her peers not only because of her mastery as an educator, but also because of the empathy and compassion she shows for her students,” said Harriet Sanford, president and CEO of the NEA Foundation.

Known for her inquiry-based approach to mathematics, Woodard holds a bachelor’s degree in math from the University of Memphis and a master’s degree in secondary math education from Vanderbilt University.

She has had numerous state-level roles, including serving on the education department’s teachers cabinet and on the testing task force created by former Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. She also is on the steering committee for the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a Nashville-based education research and advocacy organization.

You can watch Woodard in her classroom in the video below.

Penny Schwinn

What we heard from Tennessee’s education commissioner during her first week

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn (right) speaks with students during a visit to LEAD Neely's Bend, a state-run charter school in Nashville. (Photo courtesy of LEAD Public Schools)

From students in the classroom to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Penny Schwinn introduced herself as Tennessee’s education commissioner this week by praising the state’s academic gains over the last decade and promising to keep up that momentum by supporting school communities.

Schwinn toured seven schools in Middle and East Tennessee during her first three days on the job to get a firsthand look at what’s behind the academic growth that she’s watched from afar as chief accountability officer for Delaware’s education department and more recently as deputy commissioner over academics in Texas. She plans to visit schools in West Tennessee next week.

The goal, she said, is to “listen and learn,” and she told a statewide gathering of superintendents at midweek that Tennessee’s successes can be traced to the classroom.

“It has to do with the hard work of our educators … every single day getting up, walking in front of our children, and saying ‘You deserve an excellent education, and I’m going to be the one to give it to you,’” she said.

On policy, she affirmed Tennessee’s decade-long blueprint of setting rigorous academic standards, having a strong assessment to track performance, and holding school communities accountable for results.

“If we can keep that bar high … then I think that Tennessee will continue to improve at the rate that it has been,” she told legislators during an appearance before the House Education Committee.

Schwinn was the final cabinet member to start her job after being hired by Republican Gov. Bill Lee just days before his inauguration on Jan. 19. Her whirlwind first week began with school visits on Monday and concluded on Friday by attending a policy-heavy session of the State Board of Education.

But perhaps the biggest introduction came on Wednesday before district leaders attending a statewide meeting of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, also known as TOSS. These are the local administrators she’ll work with most closely to try to improve student performance.

The superintendents group had stayed neutral about who should succeed Candice McQueen in the state’s top policy job but hoped for a leader with extensive experience both in the classroom and as a Tennessee school superintendent. Schwinn is neither, having started her career in a Baltimore classroom through Teach For America and later founding a charter school in her hometown of Sacramento, California, where she also was a principal and then became an assistant district superintendent.

She appeared to wow them.

“Our job at the state Department of Education is to figure out what you all need to help your teachers be the best that they can be for our students. My job is to lead this department to ensure that this happens,” she told the superintendents.

Schwinn shared a personal story about adopting her oldest daughter, now age 6, and the “powerful moment” at the hospital when the birth mom said she loved her baby but couldn’t provide her with the future she deserves. “I think you can,” she told Schwinn, “and so I’m giving you my baby.”

Penny Schwinn speaks to the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. (Photo courtesy of TOSS)

“When I think about my responsibility as a teacher or a principal or as commissioner of the state of Tennessee, I think about all of our parents … who pack up lunches, pack up backpacks, drop them off at the door and they give us their babies,” she said.

“That is the most powerful and important responsibility that we have as educators,” she said, “and I take that very, very seriously.”

Several superintendents stood up to thank her.

“I am encouraged. I feel like you have the heart that we all have,” said Linda Cash, who leads Bradley County Schools in southeast Tennessee.

“What she did most is she listened,” said TOSS Executive Director Dale Lynch of his earlier meeting with Schwinn. “As superintendents and directors, that’s very important to us.”

Here are other things we heard Schwinn say this week:

On whether Tennessee will continue its 3-year-old literacy program known as Read to be Ready:

“It is incredibly important that we have initiatives that stick and that have staying power. I think we’ve all had the experience of having … one-and-done initiatives that come and go. … From [my early school] visits, it was underscored time and time again the importance of initiatives like that.”

On the role of early childhood education:

“I think that early education — and that’s both academic and social development — is incredibly important to ensure that we get kindergartners who are ready to learn and ready to be successful.”

On the state-run turnaround district for Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools:

“High expectations are the vision of the Achievement School District, but I think there’s a lot of work to be done candidly. There are good conversations to be had and some questions to be asked. But I will say that I am committed to ensuring that our lowest-performing schools achieve and grow at a much faster rate than they have been.”

On Texas’ academic growth in the 1990s that later flattened:

“They got very comfortable. It was, ‘We’re just doing just fine, we’re doing a great job,’ and then slowly some of the big reforms that they put into place in the ’90s started peeling back little by little. … It’s hard to get things done, but it’s really hard to hold the line.”

Here are six other things to know about Penny Schwinn.