Sarah Hecht knew something was up when Hazelwood School District Superintendent Nettie Collins-Hart walked into her classroom with a camera crew in tow.
“I think it kind of scared my students,” Hecht said with a laugh. “They didn’t know what to do.”
Hecht hardly knew what to do herself, but the surprising fanfare came with good news. Collins-Hart informed Hecht, a second grade teacher at McCurdy Elementary School, that her peers named her the 2021-2022 Hazelwood School District Teacher of the Year.
Collins-Hart commended Hecht’s dedication to her students at the impromptu celebration.
“We are so fortunate to have Ms. Hecht in our school district,” Collins-Hart said. “Her ability to connect with students and provide innovative instruction is awe-inspiring.”
Hecht, a two-time graduate of the College of Education at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, said the accolade was particularly meaningful as a resident of Florissant, where McCurdy is located, and as a 2003 graduate of Hazelwood Central High School.
“I still feel like I’m in shock sometimes because I live in the community,” she said. “So, everywhere I go, even when I went to the dentist, they’re like, ‘Congratulations!’ I’m very humbled by it. It’s nice to be recognized for the things you do. I’m still shocked I won out of everybody – it’s a big district.”
As a young student in the Hazelwood School District, Hecht always looked up to her teachers and realized early on that she wanted to go into education. Like many future educators, she emulated her role models at home and looked for pupils wherever she could find them.
“I used to play school all the time,” she said. “Me and my friend would have a summer school where we would teach our little brothers and sisters, whether they liked it or not.”
Later on, she had opportunities to work with children while volunteering at her church and the Hazelwood Central Early Childhood Education Center. Those experiences confirmed her decision to pursue a degree in elementary education.
After considering several universities, Hecht chose to attend UMSL. Not only was the university close to her home, which was important to her, it also offered a prestigious educator preparation program.
“I liked being close to home,” she said. “I wanted to be able to travel there and not have to necessarily live on campus. I could still be at home and volunteer at the places I volunteered at and still live my life with my family.”
Hecht found the faculty and staff in the College of Education incredibly personable and supportive, and she especially enjoyed the hands-on experiences the program provided.
After graduating with her bachelor’s degree, Hecht worked in the Riverview Gardens School District for four years. She returned to UMSL during that time, earning an MEd in elementary education in 2014.
The completion of graduate school also happened to coincide with the birth of Hecht’s youngest child. At that point, Hecht decided to take a year off from teaching full-time, but she didn’t step away from the classroom completely.
She started subbing for the Hazelwood School District, the place that sparked her interest in the profession and, ultimately, where she wanted to call home as an educator. After subbing regularly over the course of a school year, the district obliged.
“They offered me a job after I got done subbing, asked if I wanted to become full-time,” Hecht said. “That’s where I always wanted to be, Hazelwood. That’s where I went to school. That’s where I live. That’s where my kids go to school. I couldn’t pass it up.”
For the past seven years, Hecht’s instruction at McCurdy has been guided by compassion. Her students see that it’s OK to make mistakes because they can learn from them and move forward. She reminds them that even incremental progress is something to celebrate.
Hecht also prioritizes building relationships with each student, so they feel safe in her classroom. Because of the supportive environment she’s built, students often come back to her for advice and mentorship long after leaving her class.
“That trusting relationship really means a lot to me and to them,” she said. “I think it’s part of the reason I was nominated because other teachers see that their students always want to come back to me when they’re upset or they’re mad or they’re having a hard time. Those relationships really mean a lot to me, but it also means a lot to the students.”
Her approach isn’t just about being an effective educator. It’s also about being a kind friend and neighbor in her community.
“I have a lot of pride in the district, coming from it and still living here,” Hecht said. “I want the district to be successful because I’m an alumni. It’s where my kids go. I’m happy here. I’m happy to have my kids go to Hazelwood.”