By Bryan Gentry | July 21, 2020
What a time to be South Carolina’s top teacher.
Educators throughout the state are figuring out new ways to teach and ensure the welfare of their students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hybrid classes, online instruction, school lunches and countless other topics are on people’s minds. And Sarah Schumacher Gams is at the forefront as the state’s new teacher of the year.
More than an award, the honor designates Gams as one of South Carolina’s leading advocates for public education. For the next year, she will mentor teachers and serve as spokesperson for more than 50,000 educators.
“COVID-19 is changing public education as we know it,” says Gams, an English teacher at Spring Hill High School in Chapin. “How that change looks ― what we prioritize ― that is going to be the challenge of all educators and policy-makers. And classroom teachers will be, as we always are, at the center of that change because we are the strongest advocates for our students.”
We were always talking about our reading and our writing. ... I took all those wonderful discussions and peer editing opportunities and presentations into my own English classroom.
― Sarah Gams
Gams plans to use her platform to advocate for resources teachers need in order to teach in hybrid and online models of learning. “The heart of education will remain the same: fostering student interest, making our subjects relevant and vital, providing students with essential skills to be successful, and productive, future citizens. We can do it," she says. “But we must have support.”
“Our schools are the center of our communities--we must safeguard our students and our teachers. We all must do our part.”
Molly Spearman, the state superintendent of education, visited Gams at home in June to announce her selection for the position. “The role of South Carolina Teacher of the Year during the upcoming school year will require tremendous leadership," Spearman said at the time. “Sarah has shown throughout her career her ability to rise to the occasion and meet the needs of students wherever they are. She is most deserving of this honor and the attributes she possesses will be invaluable assets as she helps to lead our state and the teaching profession forward.”
Gams invigorates her English classroom with thinking that goes far beyond the books students read. “My students explore literary themes and make connections to their lives and society today: the impact of prejudice, unrestricted power, the aftermath of 9/11, love and grief, the value of privacy and individualism,” she says.
She gives her students assignments that require creativity to bring ideas to life, using experiments in statistics, programming, digital presentations and more to explore and present ideas related to their texts. “My students take our topic of study, apply it to their interests and lives, and produce something new," Gams says. “Students find it suddenly essential to understand and utilize all those deeply difficult and challenging English skills, like literature reviews, in-text citations and bibliographies.”
In a way, I've always been a Gamecock.
― Sarah Gams
Gams forged the foundation for her teaching as an English major at UofSC. “We were always talking about our reading and our writing,” Gams says. “I loved those discussions ― thinking about how authors structured their work, their words, to create meaning. … I knew that’s how I wanted to spend my life: talking about reading and writing, about ideas, about communicating those ideas. So I took all those wonderful discussions and peer editing opportunities and presentations into my own English classroom. I made students and their ideas the center of my classroom; the primary goal of my curriculum became my students’ clear, meaningful communication of their ideas.”
After finishing her English degree in 2002, earning honors in South Carolina Honors College, she returned to campus for her master’s degree in secondary education. She has taught at Spring Hill High School for seven years. She previously taught at Chapin Middle School for 10 years.
She says UofSC always has been, and continues to be, an important part of her life. Her mother graduated in 1971, and Gams attended with an Alumni Scholars Scholarship. Her husband and son are Gamecock fans, so they enjoy tailgates with family and friends. Today, she supervises student teachers from UofSC in her classroom. “In a way, I’ve always been a Gamecock,” she says.