State Superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster was at Patrick Marsh Middle School (PMMS) on Sept. 5 to present the 2008 Wisconsin Middle School Teacher of the Year Award to Sandra Kowalczyk. Kowalczyk, a resident of Marshall, is a reading specialist at PMMS, working with reluctant readers in grades 6-8.

The purpose of the Friday morning assembly had been kept a secret to ensure Kowalczyk's surprise.

"It's interesting when they called me and told me about this, they wouldn't tell me at first. They just said they had this event," District Administrator Tim Culver said. "They kind of revealed it slowly because we had to arrange the assembly for this. But the nice thing was that I could think of four or five people that maybe this was for."

The PMMS gymnasium was filled, not only with energetic students and teachers geared up for a new school year, but also a few local and state officials. State Representative Gary Hebl and Sun Prairie Mayor Joe Chase were present to show gratitude and appreciation to Kowalczyk, as were Sun Prairie School Board members John Whalen, Caren Diedrich and Jill Camber-Davidson.

PMMS principal Clark Luessman welcomed the students and teachers and began the introductions of special guests by introducing Culver to the students, who responded with cheers, applause and a few dropped jaws.

"That's the nicest welcome I've had in a long time," Culver said as he took to the podium. "We brought some special people here today, and you're going to be very proud of your school, your community, your teachers, and you know, you're going to one of the best middle schools in the state of Wisconsin."

Burmaster's job, Culver explained, is to visit the 426 school districts in the state to make sure "everything is working for every kid in Wisconsin. It's a huge job."

After the cheers of the students died down and before turning the podium over to Burmaster, Culver had one more introduction to make.

"All this positive energy you're giving, we can't have an event in Sun Prairie, especially on a home game day, without getting into the Sun Prairie pride spirit," Culver said. "So I wanted to introduce State Superintendent of Public Instruction to Curt the Cardinal."

Burmaster welcomed Curt with a hug before he revved up the students and got their feet thundering on the bleachers in drum roll fashion. Burmaster welcomed the students to the morning's event and congratulated them on their fourth day of school.

"I am delighted to be here," Burmaster said. "I'm here for a couple reasons. The first is to thank you for being such an excellent middle school in our state. I want to thank you for your academic achievement. You do very well in your academics. I want to thank you for your spirit, for the way you respect each other, for the school climate you've created here, for creating a learning community where every single one of you can do your very best."

"But there is also another reason that I'm here," Burmaster continued. "I have quite a secret that's been kept a secret for quite a while, and that's not an easy thing to do. I'm here also because I want to talk about teaching, and I want to talk about excellence in teaching."

Burmaster then asked for all the teachers to stand up so the students and public could thank them for their service. The students cheered, whistled and thundered their feet on the bleachers, which turned out to be just what Burmaster said she needed before she could let the students and teachers in on her secret.

After three drum roll practices, Burmaster continued to talk about the excellence of the PMMS teachers.

"All of the folks you saw stand up are excellent teachers, excellent educators and they're dedicating their lives to one of the hardest jobs right now in our country, one of the hardest, one of the most important," Burmaster said. "And really one of the most rewarding."

With the help of three PMMS students, seventh grader Kaiti Playter, and eighth graders Monica Miggins and Bryce Malenke, Burmaster toled the students that there are 63,342 people are working as teachers in Wisconsin; of those 63,342 teachers, 550 of them teach in Sun Prairie; and of those 550 in Sun Prairie, 63 of them teach at PMMS.

"I am here today on my last stop of four schools where I have visited to announce out of the 63,342 teachers in the state, who the four teachers of the year are. And that is a very, very, prestigious and exciting award and honor to be named a teacher of the year," Burmaster said. "It's a big deal, and I'm here today to announce, of all those teachers who stood, one of them is Wisconsin's Middle School Teacher of the Year. Curt the Cardinal, may I have the envelope please."

"Are you ready for your cue?" Burmaster asked the students, who got their feet rolling on the bleachers when Burmaster cued the drum roll. "The middle school teacher of the year for the state of Wisconsin is... Hey Curt, who do you think is going to win the game?"

After four false starts and thundering, cheer filled drum rolls, Burmaster asked Curt, "Do you think they're a little anxious to know who this is?"

The students responded with cheers and applause.

"All right, all right. Wisconsin's middle school teacher of the year is... drum roll... Sandy Kowalczyk," Burmaster said.

The students and teachers gave Kowaczyk a standing ovation as she made her way to the podium.

"Wow. What a wonderful way to start the year," Kowalczyk said as she accepted the award. She shared with the students that as she was accepting the honor of being Wisconsin's Middle School Teacher of the Year, her very first teacher, her mother, was celebrating her 77th birthday.

"She introduced me to the world of books, and inspired me to love to read," Kowalczyk said just before her husband, David Harper, and daughters, Sosha and Hannah Kowalczyk-Harper, joined her at the podium. Sosha is just beginning her first year as a middle school teacher, while Hannah is a senior in High School.

Before turning the podium back to Burmaster, Kowaczyk asked for all the teachers at PMMS to stand up once again for a round of applause.

"Patrick Marsh students, you are very lucky indeed, and wow, what a wonderful way to start the year. Thank you," Kowalczyk said.

The other teachers honored as this year's Teachers of the Year for the state of Wisconsin were Elementary Teacher of the Year Lori Neurohr, second grade teacher at Kohler Elementary School; High School Teacher of the Year Lucas Siebert, technology teacher to seventh-twelfth graders of Oostburg High School; and Special Services Teacher of the Year Sharon Gilbert, who was nominated as a music teacher at Alexander Middle School in the Nekoosa School District and currently is a music teacher at Humke Elementary School in Nekoosa.

As part of the honor, each will receive $3,000 from U.S. Senator Herb Kohl through the Herb Kohl Educational Foundation. Burmaster will honor the four teachers on Sept. 18 during her State of Education speech and awards ceremony at the capitol in Madison.

"I'm just very proud for Sandy," Culver said after the ceremony on Friday. "We have a lot of outstanding teachers and I think it's great that one of our best ones is recognized in this way. It's very well deserved."

As TV crews and reporters began to crowd around Kowalczyk, she took refuge to speak with some of the most important people in her life, her students. Kowalczyk works hard in her classroom to help reluctant readers become excited about literature.

"If I can get kids excited about reading, it's not short term. It's a life changer," she said in a previous interview with The Star after she received the James Patterson PageTurner Award this past June.

"I've been [in her class] for sixth grade, seventh grade and now eighth grade, and when I first went in there I did not like reading. I hated it," said Monica Miggins. "But now I love to read. She makes reading so fun, the way she teaches it, tells stories."

"She tells hilarious stories," Kaiti Playter said in agreement. "She's awesome. She's so good at teaching."

Kowalczyk helps students in whatever they need, not just reading, as in the case with eighth grader Bryce Malenke.

"My reading skills were OK but my writing skills were terrible," he said. "She taught me how to write. I didn't know how to end a story, and she taught me how."

"Wow, I'm really overwhelmed right now," Kowalczyk told reporters after receiving the Teacher of the Year award. "I don't know what I'll do next for an encore."

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