Of all the ceremonies honoring her as Education Minnesota’s 2022 Teacher of the Year, none was as meaningful to Sarah Lancaster ’13, as the celebration in her small Central Minnesota hometown of Onamia – at the place she calls “my school”.
“I sat across from MY first-grade teacher,” Lancaster said of the especially personal ceremony in the school where she feels privileged every day to work with the people who influenced her and to teach the first-graders whose lives she impacts every day.
When she graduated from St. Cloud State University with her degree in Elementary Education, she had job offers from much bigger districts Minneapolis and Stillwater. But it was Onamia – the tiny community in Mille Lacs County – that still held Lancaster’s heart. “I couldn’t take the job fast enough,” she said of her choice to return to the classrooms that were the only place beyond her home where she was allowed to go as a child.
“Sarah wanted to come back to the town she grew up in to help with all children, but especially the ones like her when she was in Onamia Elementary School – the shy, quiet ones with potential to be and do anything they put their mind to if they had a little help,” said Jeff Walz, who has known her as her teacher, coach, and colleague.
That shyness stemmed from what Lancaster calls a traumatic childhood. Her mother had been bought and imported at age 13 from the Philippines to become her stern father’s fourth wife, and he kept her and the children they had together in seclusion – never going outdoors, making friends or enjoying activities most children experience. Until he died when Sarah was age 11, the only place beyond her home Sarah was allowed to go was Onamia Elementary School.
Proud to be the first educator of Asian Pacific Islander descent to be named Minnesota Teacher of the Year, Lancaster has risen above the abuse and shame her father treated his non-white family members with. She emerged from her unique lifestyle to go on to be an active student in Onamia and at St. Cloud State, becoming a strong role model for the first-graders she teaches.
“My students see in me someone who reflects the community,” Lancaster said. Many of her students come from families below the poverty line and/or minority backgrounds, including members of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe indigenous to the area. Besides the natural empathy she generously shares with all the children in her classrooms and in the community, she brings in indigenous artists and makes sure when she brings in a representative of a community leader she includes persons of color, such as a non-white member of the fire department or an expert from the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe to talk about wildlife.
Lancaster believes the way to increase opportunities for Minnesota schoolchildren is to increase the number of teachers of color – not only in the large city school districts, but in the rural schools that also have students of color who benefit from seeing someone who looks like them in front of the classroom.
One of her most memorable experiences as a teacher is that from a parent who called Lancaster to tell her, “My daughter came home today and said ‘my teacher looks like me’ then started crying because she knew it was a first for her daughter.”
“I was thankful that I had that opportunity,” Lancaster said. “Who I am impacted that child.”
She says her own experience as a wife and mother to 3-year-old son, Emmett, has given her a different perspective on the significance of showing children that somebody in this world loves and cares for them.
In a video submitted to the Education Minnesota Teacher of the Year award selection panel, Lancaster said of her impact on students: “I get to show them that beyond these barriers is an amazing person, a scholar, an athlete, someone looking to connect with their culture and find their true identity. I can supply and awaken the language, strategies, enthusiasm, and joy that very well may have been inside them all along.”
Fellow teacher Cyndi Martin said her friend is always willing to look for students’ strengths and find ways to build them up. “She works hard to develop good relationships and engage in communication with her class, as a whole and with individual students,” she said. “She takes time to talk with other professionals and find the best ways to interact with those around her.”
In her nine years of teaching in the district where Walz was a teacher and coach for 34 years, he said of Sarah’s impact on her students: “She has been someone to encourage them, someone to nudge them along, and give them confidence that they CAN achieve their goals.”
“Sarah (then Sarah Shivers) and I crossed paths around the year 2000,” Walz said. “I was coaching the elementary basketball program. Later, Sarah showed up in my homeroom in 6th grade. She was shy, quiet, but very bright. I remember her being extremely happy to be in school and learning. She had a wonderful circle of friends and still sees many of them today.”
By sixth grade Lancaster’s life and the lives of her family members had changed dramatically as a result of her father’s death. Suddenly her mother was able to go outdoors, riding a bike and taking over leadership of her late husband’s printing company. And Sarah had blossomed in her discovery of the world that had been kept beyond her reach for so long.
In school Sarah became an active participant in activities and academics. In her junior and senior years of high school she earned many of her college credits. When she first went to St. Cloud State, she said she focused on “how do I function as a human” in this even more expansive world beyond Onamia. On campus she gained confidence, joining and becoming a leader in Kappa Delta Pi education sorority.
Coach Walz followed Sarah’s progress, and when she returned to teach in Onamia, “Immediately I asked her to help with my track program where she advanced to assistant varsity coach,” he said. “She was well organized and her athletes loved her. She had an amazing way of including all and finding every athlete an event of two that they could be successful in,” he said.
“The sacrifices Sarah has made to come back to Onamia have been huge,” Walz said. “Sarah is tireless in the community and the classroom. She has taken the joys and pains of her upbringing to focus her attention on helping children that have terrible home lives and lack of support. She has put upon herself to be that family and support system they need.”
Onamia Principal Daniel Fischer agrees. “Sarah is a huge asset to our school,” he said. “Her energy and passion for teaching is noticed by students, colleagues, and the community. We are truly honored to have Sarah as a part of our team at Onamia Elementary and having the “Teacher of Year” in OUR building has inspired not only our students but our staff and community as a whole. She has become a “celebrity” of sorts.”
Lancaster’s passion for activism and influencing future generations goes beyond the work in her classroom. “Sarah is incredibly involved in the community,” said Martin. “Sarah cares very much about the town she grew up in that gave her so much, and the school district she’s been a part of her entire life.”
Currently she serves as President of the Onamia Area Civic Association, and she has coached several seasons of both athletics and arts programs in Onamia. She has directed three of the annual high school musicals and volunteers with local youth groups and through her church. Some of the students she has coached in debate and speech are in or past college, and she said it’s exciting to see how they have grown and applied the leadership skills she has helped bring out in them.
She also has personally become more active in advocacy for more persons of color in professions such as teaching. This representation can help more students overcome the things that are holding them back as students. “I can’t tell you the last time I saw a teacher of color as a speaker or panel member at a teacher conference.” She wants to change that.
Representing the small, unique, rural, diverse community of Onamia has been an enlightening experience for Sarah and for teachers she meets from other communities. The educators she has learned from and now work with have shown her the ripple effect that teachers have on those who will be the leaders of the future, and she knows that it’s important to share that message.
“I am so proud of who Sarah has become,” Walz said. “To see her get the recognition that she deserves (but does not necessarily want) makes me feel incredible inside – one example of what has made my 34 years of teaching a beautiful journey.”