North Dakota’s teacher of the year believes academics are important, but building solid relationships with her students are essential.

Sara Medalen, a reading and mathematics interventionist at Sunnyside Elementary in Minot, will be honored during a celebration in the Great Hall at the State Capitol in Bismarck on Oct. 16.

True to form, she invited a class of fourth graders to attend the ceremony.  “It will be a great learning opportunity for them,” she said.

She said she chose the fourth graders because that is the age group that learns about North Dakota history as part of their studies. The children will have a chance to tour the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum as well as to see the capitol building.

Medalen also took a group of girls in her after school Girl Power group to the capitol on Women’s Day last year and the students had a chance to tour the museum.

In addition to teaching, Medalen has also launched other programs at the school that benefit kids.

Kids who belong to her Dudes and Dos and Books and Braids group have a chance to read to Medalen while she does their hair.

“I didn’t think boys would be interested in having their hair done, but they are,” said Medalen.

She said they may really like having the one on one time with an adult.

A number of the kids at Sunnyside Elementary are at the school from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., attending before school and after school programs in addition to school.

Medalen meets with the kids by appointment in the morning, before the busiest part of the day, and the kids get practice reading and time with a teacher who really cares about them.

“The social-emotional development of kids is a priority for me and for this school and I think it’s becoming a priority all over the state,” said Medalen. “I think we’re really realizing that we have to have that solid foundation with so many kids coming to school with trauma … We talk about kids coming to school with an invisible backpack that’s filled with worries and fear and anxiety and depression and anger and hopelessness. A lot of these programs I started specifically because of that. I wanted to give kids the tools they need to succeed in life and change the trajectory of their lives, if that’s what they need to happen.”

Her after school Girl Power group started as an international literacy project for the North Dakota Literacy Association. The girls in the group sold T-shirts and helped raise money to pay tuition for girls in Haiti to attend school. The girls in the group also had a chance to Skype with girls at a Haitian school and ask questions about their lives last year.

The group was meeting a few times per month and has also learned about women in nontraditional careers.

Medalen said she and the other leaders of the group make it clear that girls think they are equal to boys, not better than boys.

Medalen and teaching partners also led kids earlier this year in STEAM Saturdays, which included fun projects focused on science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics. Kids in the group learned coding, made paper airplanes and attached different weights to them to see how it affected how far they would fly, and worked with circuit boards. Some of the parents of the students agreed to teach art.

Medalen has been teaching at Sunnyside for about 16 years. She earned her undergraduate degree in deaf education and elementary education and a master’s degree in special education. She started her teaching career in Yuma, Ariz., where she worked on setting up a program for hearing impaired students. It was a school with a high percentage of children from immigrant families who did not speak English as a first language. Medalen said she learned from teaching such a diverse group of students and remembers that she and other teachers sometimes had to go to the fields where the children’s parents were working to get signatures on paperwork because parents were unable to leave their jobs.

Medalen later worked as a Title I teacher at Surrey and then at Minot Air Force Base as a Title I teacher. Her experiences teaching at a rural school and then teaching students who came from Air Force families that had lived in so many different places were also helpful to her.

Sunnyside also has a diverse student population, some of whom come from families that move frequently. Medalen recalls that the population of the school was affected by the Souris River flood of 2011 as well as by the oil boom.

Medalen said she doesn’t know yet what roles she will take on as teacher of the year, but past teachers of the year have had such opportunities as attending Space Camp, visiting Washington, D.C., or visiting Google Headquarters.

Medalen also hopes to serve as an advocate for all teachers and students across the state. Problems in a larger school system like Minot might be different from problems that teachers in a smaller community have. She said strong public schools make stronger communities.

Medalen said she is honored to be chosen as teacher of the year, but Minot is blessed with many other wonderful teachers.

She did say that teacher retention is a challenge in general. She has read studies that suggest that many younger teachers in the profession end up burning out after one to six years of teaching.

“I hope that they can look at me, somebody who’s been teaching 28 years and is still a lifelong learner and still wants to try new things with students and use innovative strategies,” said Medalen. “Hopefully that will inspire some of these young teachers to stick with it because it is such a rewarding career. There are not many careers out there where you have the opportunity to really touch kids’ hearts and change lives.”