Prairie Wife of the Week July 11, 2014
Posted July 11, 2014 by Prairie Wife - 2 comments
The first time I saw Sheryl Lain in action I was a young teacher, just finishing up my second year in first grade. Sheryl came into our school as part of our yearly staff development, and encouraged us to help our children grow as writers. She was vibrant and passionate about students. Her obvious love of writing and education as a whole was contagious. What started as yet another boring teacher training ended with excitement and smiles all around. When I learned that she was running for Wyoming State Superintendent of Schools I was thrilled. Our schools, teachers, and students are struggling, and her fresh attitude is what I feel we need.
As I visited with her for our interview I was reminded all over again how captivated I was by her passion. Not only is she well spoken, but she is a caring and concerned listener…I may have taken us off topic a few times. After all, last time I had seen her I was a young teacher barely married and with no children. Now I’m a mother of four children, dealing first hand with standardized testing and trying to make sure my children are valued and supported in their classroom every day. Sheryl’s passion for education, her desire to improve the educational experience for each and every student, and her ability to repeatedly answer her community’s call to service, make her the perfect Prairie Wife of the Week. Sheryl will be stopping by every few days to respond to any questions or comments, please feel free to share your thoughts or concerns in the comments section.
Prairie Wife (PW): First tell us about your family.
Sheryl Lain (SL): My experiences growing up in Wyoming have helped to define who I am today. The lessons I learned about community and how to treat others have impacted how I serve my community and neighbors. During WWII my father fought in the Battle of the Bulge. My mom and I got to live with my grandparents in Powell, Wyoming on a homestead. When my dad came back from war he drew a homestead. Our land was beautiful, and located in the flatlands at the base of Heart Mountain, about a mile and a half out of Ralston, Wyoming. Living in a small agricultural community, I learned the true definition of a neighbor. When people were sick we helped with meals and chores. We held community pot luck dinners and most of us attended Bible school at the community club house. We celebrated the joys of life as a group, and held each other up during the hard times.
I had five little sisters and my dad was a farmer as well as the agriculture teacher at Powell High School. He hired boys to help out on the farm. My dad was such a hard worker; every day he was up early working for our family and community. It was from him that I learned how to pull myself up by my boot straps, and charge forward to reach my goals. Heart Mountain is a part of who I am, and despite not having lived there for decades I still say I am from Powell, Wyoming.
I met my husband Gayle when I was a junior, and we eloped as soon as I graduated from high school. My parents probably weren’t too pleased, but it worked out! We have 4 children, 3 boys and a girl, and 13 grandchildren.
PW: You’ve been in the field of education for a lot of years; can you walk us through your career?
SL: Gayle and I went to the University of Wyoming and Northwest Community College. I liked the personal attention at the community college and the exchange of ideas. I then finished my degree at UW and graduate with a degree in English and Spanish and a minor in Journalism.
My first job was at Morton School where I was the English teacher, librarian, advisor for the newspaper, theater and debate teacher. Morton has been consolidated into Wind River School District. About 40% of our students were Native Americans.
I actually had no intention of teaching yet. Gayle and I had two little boys and I wanted to stay home with them. But about a week before school started, two men came up to my door, literally hat in hand, and asked me if I would teach English at their school. I said I didn’t want to leave my boys and turned them down but, we had such debt from college that I decided the responsible thing to do would be to take the job. I said I would work half days and they immediately agreed.
I have learned that you do what you need to do to find the balance for your heart’s desire—in my case it was teaching and taking care of my own children. I love to teach. I could take that maternal feeling for my own kids and share it subtly with my students. I think that my students could look into my eyes and see the deep regard I had for them. Even today, I run into those past students, and I am deeply honored when they tell me I made a difference in their lives. Being a teacher is a calling, and I’m glad I said yes. It was a heck of a first year, but I wouldn’t change a thing!
From 1968-1999 I taught English. By this time we had moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming and most of these years were spent at Carey Junior High. I love those middles school kids! It’s such a tender time in their lives, and they need to have a teacher who cares. I think my job, besides teaching students English, writing and literature, is to regard every student as brilliant. It’s my job to learn their potential and tailor my lessons so that each student can shine.
In Laramie County District, a position opened in curriculum development and I took the position. I didn’t want to leave the classroom so I taught half time. The Wyoming Writing project began then. This is a staff development model that makes writing easier to teach. The Project teaches teachers to begin with the students’ ideas and go through the writing process—all the way to editing and publishing.
I also began to travel around the state and do staff development to help schools, to offer ideas to teachers and support. Giving a teacher the confidence and the tools they need is empowering! Many of the schools where I worked grew; some became national award winning. I lead the first group of teachers and community members in writing the first Wyoming state standards in 1999. When I traveled around the state I went to over 200 of the 350 schools in Wyoming. When you visit this many schools you really learn about what makes a positive learning environment for students and teachers. I returned to Carey Junior High and that school’s special education population grew 32% points in one year. I just showed the teachers what to do, they did all the work.
PW: How did becoming a mother and grandmother impact the way you look at education?
SL: I have always felt that my first job on earth is to take care of my children. Thankfully the career I was called to do was one that melded well with raising my kids. My career enabled me to provide for my family’s physical and emotional needs. I also got to teach my own child one year, it was the best thing for me as a mom and teacher. I could really see how the work I had been giving my students impacted their learning. I got to see if my work as a teacher fit for my life as a parent. It was such a special year.
PW: You are running for Wyoming State Superintendent, can you tell us what that job entails and what led to your decision to run?
SL: I was invited to work at Carey, as I said, and worked under principal Cindy Hill. When she became State Superintendent she approached me and asked if I would come and work for the state of Wyoming as a co-deputy in charge of instruction. I accepted. One of our first missions was to travel the state sharing with teachers reading instruction. About 2000 teachers came on their own time and scores went up all across the state.
When Cindy Hill was ordered by the legislation to step down replacing the elected position with an appointed one, they stripped her of her duties as Wyoming State Superintendent. The legislation created a new agency called the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and I went with Cindy to this new office. The Supreme Court eventually ruled this move as unconstitutional and now we are back in the Wyoming Department of Education.
I want to be superintendent to focus our attention on parents, students and teachers, where the real magic happens in student learning. Yes, we have federal and state rules and regulations that must and need to be followed. But our job as educators and stakeholders is to be sure students learn. It’s important that we work together to create a wonderful educational experience for every student. The Wyoming Constitution says the job of the State Superintendent of Schools is to provide general supervision of schools. For all the reasons I stated previously, I know schools! When I was asked to run I felt called, and like all the other times, I said yes. I believe in service. I know I can bring my decades of experience as a teacher and the two years at the state agency to make our Wyoming schools better.
PW: The big debate in education now is the common core curriculum; can you give our readers an overview of what this is and share your feelings about it?
SL: Common Core is a national push to have common standards across the United States. But, the standards are not the only part of the “package” and when states adopt Common Core, they agree to the whole “package”. Part of that package is a nationwide test…not one designed by Wyoming based on standards designed by Wyoming teachers. I find a national test troubling. We are over testing our kids as it is. Then there is another piece to this “package.” The third piece is that teachers are evaluated based on the standardized test. That is fraught with peril! Even testing companies will tell you that there is no test to judge how well a teacher teaches. Already across the county there are rumblings of law suits, creating a volatile situation.
There is no way that a student’s score on a test should and can determine a teacher’s worth. There is no test in K-2 but there is in third grade, how fair is that to the third grade teacher? You only have a kid for 5 hours a day because they are in rich, diverse and vital things like art and gym and music. In secondary schools, only math, science and English teachers are subject to this accountability. States that have adopted Common Core have created a huge tangle.
Everyone wants accountability. We all are responsible for our actions. But who should judge a teacher’s ability? The best accountability system is local when principals, parents, students and peers hold one another accountable. States are beginning to see the folly of this Common Core Package. Oklahoma, Indiana, South Carolina and Louisiana just repealed their Common Core. As Superintendent, a broad conversation needs to be held about standards. Using technology, we can and should include people from all over the state in this conversation. We need guidelines and accountability, I agree that’s important. But, the heavy hand of the government won’t work.
PW: The home school movement in Wyoming has really exploded in the last few years. Why do you think that is?
SL: I think there are a variety of reasons. Part of it is that we have so much technology, and homeschooling is more viable. Another reason might be that parents want more say in their children’s education, especially now that so many decisions about education seem to be coming down from above. Teachers feel stress and parents pick up on that, and parents don’t want their children in a high-stress classroom.
Frankly it’s also harder for parents to be involved, with all these things that teachers need to make sure are done each day; the flexibility to enjoy the classroom is being lost. Parents are saying, “My child needs to be seen as not just a number!” and rightfully so! I encourage parents to make the choice that best suits their family.
PW: What are your goals for the next few months before the primary elections in August?
SL: I want to be sure that the message I bring is heard around the state. I want people to make a balanced decision on who they want to vote for. I want to get out and talk with communities. Let people see the differences in philosophy and action between me and the other candidates. No matter what happens, I want to know that I did what my dad would have wanted—to serve the people. I hope that my words will allow our communities to have a productive dialogue about educating our kids.
PW: Flash forward five years, what changes do you hope to see in our education system?
SL: We spend a lot of money in education and the legislature says there isn’t any bang for the buck. I don’t believe that. Schools in Wyoming are by in large good places and they can be better with more autonomy, more local decision making and less testing. It is my belief that as goes our children so goes our family, community, state and world. Public education is important in our republic, and I want to see excellence in education for all. Education of our children is essential to our health as a nation, now and in the future. I hope that in five years we will have policies set in place that will move us forward. I want us to give the power back to local control so parents can have a say, teachers can be nimble responding to the needs of each student and students take their rightful place in families, communities and work places. Our public schools need to be the best, not judged by a standardized test but by the overall success of our community and state.
PW: Any last Prairie Wife words of Wisdom?
SL: When I met my future husband, Gayle, he was an orphan. His heart’s desire was to have a family, to have children. Those of us with children and grandchildren know that our highest calling is to them. After parents the next important influence in kids’ lives is their teachers. Every single child is a treasure simply because they are. They should attend a school where they are nurtured and challenged, encouraged to grow, and where they see themselves and their parents as respected. If we fail our children we fail as a nation.
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