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.

teachers on the ballot

Jahana Hayes, nation’s top teacher in 2016, may be headed to Congress after primary win

2016 National Teacher of the Year Jahana Hayes answers questions from reporters after being honored at the White House. (Photo by Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Jahana Hayes, the 2016 national teacher of the year, is one step closer to Congress.

Hayes, who would be the first black Democrat elected to Congress in the state, won the Democratic primary in Connecticut’s fifth district on Tuesday. Her bid is the most high-profile example of efforts by teachers across the country to win elected office this year, with many dissatisfied over their pay and education policies like evaluations and voucher programs.

In an interview with Chalkbeat in May, Hayes said she decided to run because she believes she can represent the interests of students like hers: “I kind of just had an epiphany, like, who’s going to speak for them?”

Hayes taught history and civics in Waterbury Public Schools, a largely low-income district. Her campaign has embraced her upbringing, including her past homelessness and teen pregnancy and her role as a teacher in the district she grew up in.

“Despite being surrounded by abject poverty, drugs and violence, my teachers made me believe that I was college material and planted a seed of hope,” she said.

Hayes faced Mary Glassman, who ran for lieutenant governor twice and worked at Capitol Region Education Council, which operates magnet schools in Hartford.

Hayes ran on a solidly progressive platform, embracing universal healthcare, free college, and a $15 minimum wage.

When it comes to education, though, she has been light on policy details. Asked about what specifically she’d hope to accomplish in Congress, Hayes told Chalkbeat, “I know that I can bring a perspective and knowledge and expertise in that area that is critical. If we start to dismantle public education now, I don’t know how we’ll ever rebuild it.”

On the hot-button issue of school choice, Hayes stumbled on a question about vouchers, appearing to confuse the concept with charter schools. Ultimately, she said, “A charter system can still be public and continue to support the public education system. I think as we increase the number of vouchers that are provided, it takes away from the public school system.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Hayes said she would work with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has been the focus of opposition for many teachers.

“I need for the secretary of education to be successful because if she’s successful that means kids are thriving,” Hayes said. “I would welcome the opportunity to work very closely with her, to share ideas, to just be at the table to give a different perspective, to give some insight into what is happening on the ground.”

To reach Congress, Hayes still must win the general election. Connecticut’s fifth district is the most competitive one in the state, according to Cook Political Report. Hillary Clinton won the district by 4 percentage points in 2016.

She will face Republican Manny Santos, a former mayor of Meriden, Connecticut.

Hayes was not the only teacher to win a primary bid on Tuesday. In Wisconsin, Tony Evers, the state’s school superintendent and a former teacher and principal, will face Scott Walker in the race for governor. And in Minnesota, Congressman Tim Walz, who was a high school geography teacher and football coach, won the Democratic governor’s primary.

Correction: A previous version of this story said that Hayes would be the first black person elected to Congress in Connecticut; in fact, she would be the first black Democrat.

Mended Fences

Despite earlier attack ads, Colorado teachers union endorses Jared Polis for governor

Congressman Jared Polis meets with teachers, parents and students at the Academy of Urban Learning in Denver after announcing his gubernatorial campaign. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado’s largest teachers union has endorsed Jared Polis, the Democratic candidate for governor.

The endorsement is not a surprise given that teachers unions have traditionally been associated with the Democratic Party. However, the 35,000-member Colorado Education Association had previously endorsed one of Polis’ rivals during the primary, former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy, and contributed money toward negative ads that portrayed Polis as a supporter of vouchers based on a 2003 op-ed, in spite of votes in Congress against voucher programs.

With the primary in the past, CEA President Amie Baca-Oehlert focused on Polis’ support for more school funding, a priority shared by the union.

“Our members share Jared’s concern that too many communities don’t have the resources they need for every child to succeed,” Baca-Oehlert said in the press release announcing the endorsement. “We have created ‘haves and have-nots’ among our children, and nowhere is that more apparent than with our youngest students who don’t receive the same level of quality early childhood education. Jared impressed us with his strong commitment to give all kids a great start and better prepare them for a successful lifetime of learning.”

Polis has made expanding access to preschool and funding full-day kindergarten a key part of his education platform, along with raising pay for teachers.

Polis is running against Republican Walker Stapleton. As state treasurer, Stapleton advocated for changes to the public employee retirement system, including freezes on benefits and cost-of-living raises, that were opposed by the teachers union, something Baca-Oehlert made note of in the endorsement of Polis.

Read more about the two candidates’ education positions here.