LifeChanger of the Year Nominee Profile

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Sara Sanchez

Position: Art Teacher
School: International High School at Largo
School District: Prince George's County Public Schools
City, State: Upper Marlboro, MD

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Music that Describes Sara

Sara Sanchez was nominated by her principal, Alison Hanks-Sloan.

Walk into Ms. Sanchez's art gallery/classroom, and you'll see her with a tool in her hand giving a student feedback on their masterpiece. Her classroom walls are covered with student work and the faces of famous artists with inspirational quotes. At any given moment, there's a student trying to get a few extra minutes of their day in her class to complete their project or share an idea with her.

Ms. Sanchez never imagined being an art teacher when she was in school. In fact, she never even thought she would graduate. That self doubt was turned around by her own art teacher. When she learned she can inspire others to love art for a living, she improved her grades and, more surprising to herself than others, she went to college.

Ms. Sanchez's mom was responsible for creating lunches for all the students in her local school district. Her mom's dedication to the school and pride in her job was something that she instilled in Ms. Sanchez early on. Her mom also believed in Ms. Sanchez following her passions.

Another influence in Ms. Sanchez's life was her grandmother, who was determined to have her visit Palestine when she was younger so she would be proud of her roots and know her family tree. Having family members and friends who were immigrants inspired her commitment to social justice and helping students who are new to the United States.

When International High School @ Largo opened to provide an alternative option to immigrant and English Language Learners, Ms. Sanchez jumped at the opportunity to apply. She participated in a group interview by reminding the team to do what is right for the student. She also took an interdisciplinary project plan and integrated art into the literacy and math ideas in a way to make the learning purposeful.

As a team player, Ms. Sanchez keeps the conversation positive. She reminds teachers that their purpose as educators is to connect to the students who are hard to reach. She will question a colleague who voices a frustration about a student's attitude or an adult who says that a student disrespected him. Ms. Sanchez helps staff reflect on their own biases and be mindful to create a sanctuary in which learning is encouraged and students are safe to express themselves.

In her advisory, Ms. Sanchez engages her students in community circles, as she is a practitioner of restorative justice. When her advisory moved to the next grade level, she asked them to return to her new group and teach them about the circle process. She had students in tears as they opened up in a conversation about trust with each other.

Her students describe her as a mother.

"When I talk to her, she hears me like a friend, advises me like a mother, and doesn't judge me," said a student. "She is someone who you can trust and someone who will never judge you. No matter what, she is always going to advise you to do your work, go to class, and do good things in a nice way...She is a positive thinker. No matter how hard her situation is, she is always a nice woman."

Another student said, "She always helps me when I'm sad, and she always helps me in my work."

Ms. Sanchez is great about contacting parents to let them know when their children are doing well. She radiates positive energy and creates a safe space for students when things are difficult.

Each year, Ms. Sanchez has advised a grade level team like the senior class or co-sponsored student government. She teaches students about fiscal responsibility, leadership, and school spirit. She helps them generate ideas and execute them into successful plans. From senior class t-shirts to winning second place in a school mural on a snowplow award, she helps students use their art work to express their ideas.

When the school athletic director transferred to become a vice principal, Ms. Sanchez stepped into the role. She admitted that she did not know sports well, but she was determined to learn if it would help the students. She hired coaches, learned CPR, researched the sports rules, interviewed players about their needs, and worked with the bookkeeper to help get the team their uniforms and equipment. Ms. Sanchez also worked with the cheerleading coach to get a turtle mascot and train students for the role. Additionally, they applied for a grant to support the school in getting sports equipment, as many of the students don't have extra income to spend on sports.

Ms. Sanchez has donated her time to do face painting at local places of worship. She's also willing to help a teacher or student in need at any given time. She has painted pictures for staff members to remember someone who they have lost, and she has used art to support students through their most difficult moments. At graduation, she is surrounded by students crying and asking if they can come back and visit...and they do. 

One particular student dropped out of school during his senior year when he had to financially support himself. Ms. Sanchez coached him on what he can do to in order to return to school again the following year, and she provided him with art opportunities to keep him connected. He returned in the fall, re-enrolling and passing his classes. He is designing the graduating class's face masks, and he will walk across the stage when graduation happens.

Ms. Sanchez changes lives through art, one student at a time.