Class Acts: A Q&A with Sandra Phinney

Jackie Rasely nominated Sandra Phinney for Class Acts. Rasely said Phinney loves the kids as if they were her own, has perfect attendance and her students have so much fun they don't realize they are learning. Phinney was an award-winning chef. She incorporates that into her teaching with culinary Fridays.

• Name: Sandra Pessner Phinney

• Age: 54

• Family: Husband, Steve; daughter Kati, a senior at California State University, Long Beach; and stepdaughter Alex, a junior at Enochs High School

• City of residence: Modesto

• Occupation: Founding K-1 educator, University Charter School, Modesto

• Education background: Graduated from California State University, Chico, with a bachelor's degree in liberal studies and a multiple-subject teaching credential with a supplemental credential in business

• Teaching experience: Ten years at University Charter School, an Aspire Public School

Why did you get into teaching? As a restaurant and catering business owner, I volunteered in my daughter Kati's kindergarten and first-grade classes. It was the best part of my week. Kati's teachers encouraged me to be a teacher, so I returned to college to earn my degree and credential and enjoy my own classroom.

What is your favorite thing about being a teacher? I love challenging my students to achieve more than what the state standards ask of them. It amazes me yearly that whatever I teach my students, they are thirsty for more. This way, I feel, they will be gifts to society and make a difference in their own unique way.

What is the most challenging part of your job? Getting the word out to our community that our charter school is a fully public school. We are a school that does not require any tuition; most people think we are a private school.

What is the most important lesson you've learned? To appreciate and value not only my students, but their families, as well. The concept and reality of being and working together as extended families keeps their child heading in a positive direction and succeeding.

What is your favorite teaching tool or activity? My alumni and present students love Culinary Fridays. They keep telling me that it was one of the most meaningful experiences they had in elementary school. I create a whole interdisciplinary, two-hour unit based on cooking, and emphasize life skills, which the kids will use now and in the future. Most of my students want to grow up to be a teacher or a chef or both.

What's next in your classroom? At our charter school, we have the privilege of teaching the students for two years. This year is filled with a group of fantastic first-graders who I will miss deeply. The redeeming factor is that I will have eight siblings next year as kindergartners who will help to ease my empty nest feeling.

What advice do you have for students? To continue to be passionate about learning inside and outside the classroom. Start at a young age to volunteer in your community. Remember that there are always people who are less fortunate than you who need your help. Your heart will be full with happiness and you will make new friends, too, who will never forget your work of heart.

What advice do you have for parents? Volunteer in your child's classroom and be an active participant in his or her academic, social and emotional success during their learning process. When parents see firsthand how their child is being taught, they can be better partners with the teacher when they work with their child at home. This creates and perpetuates the child's success.

What will it take to improve academic success in the valley? I believe that education works best when parents are supportive of their child's teachers and work to do their part at home. State budget cuts in education are not the answer. Valuing educators who plant and nurture the seeds of successful young people should be the rule, not the exception.

How do you reach students not interested in school? I teach kids that learning is fun. So many times, the kids think they had fun all day. Their test scores show at our school, with a 909 API, that they learned a lot too. I understand that not all kids learn the same way. The task is for the teacher to find out how each individual student learns best, then use those particular strategies to create their plan for success.

What is one area schools should put more emphasis on? I think that local schools might put into practice having their teachers spend days visiting other teachers at different local schools. We teachers have gifts of knowledge not only to give our students, but to our local colleagues, as well.

If you could change one thing about the current educational system, what would it be and why? I would love to see more charter schools in California and in the United States.

What would surprise people about your job? People think that the last day of school must be my favorite day of the year because I have the summer off for vacation. They don't know me at all. When the last day of school comes and I pass my students on to the next grade level, it is the toughest day of the year because I will miss them as if they were my own kids.

What are your future plans? I plan to keep teaching at this grade level as I love to instill in my students a passion for learning curriculum and about the world they live in.