Iowa Teacher of the Year Sara Russell started her career in teaching as a high school special education teacher at Benton Community in Van Horne, IA, but eventually made her way to the Quad Cities to work at Pleasant Valley High School. She worked as a career center advisor at first, taught for a semester at the district’s alternative high school, and finally, for the last 16 years, has been a member of the social studies department. She’s also served as a teacher leader in her building, helping to develop and deliver professional development.

Russell’s career path shifted after hearing she had won Iowa Teacher of the Year in October 2021. She’ll serve as an ambassador over the next year for education, and the importance of education being courageous, compassionate and collaborative. “Next school year will be the first time in 20 years that I will not be in a traditional classroom,” said Russell.

Although Russell was able to gain knowledge of and experience through her career as an educator, her time as a student at Western Illinois University-Quad Cities is something she often reflects on. “While I have always considered myself a life-long learner, my classes at WIU-QC have sparked an ever greater love of learning, and love for the power of education. Because of my time at WIU-QC, I became a better thinker, writer and, I hope, human.”

“Professor Andrea Hyde was my favorite professor at WIU-QC,” said Russell. “Not only did I have the opportunity to take a number of classes from Professor Hyde, but she also served as my advisor and the chair of my master’s thesis committee. Hyde continues to inspire students to explore how education can positively transform society and the significant role that educators play in that transformation. I found that I could immediately apply the concepts we learned in class one day to my own classroom, now in my career.”

Russell encourages current Leatherneck students to face their fears head on in order to grow. “One piece of advice I would give current WIU students is to be courageous. Try something new and be open to new experiences, challenges and ideas. No one is immediately successful at everything they try, but through struggle, you experience the most growth.”