PROFILE: Serving her purpose: Sara Harris inspires students, staff at Calera Elementary School

Published 1:18 pm Tuesday, March 19, 2024

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Standing front and center in her classroom with a room full of students wide-eyed in anticipation, Calera first grade teacher Sara Harris breaks out in a dance.

The students quickly follow suit, some with giggles at their teacher, but all with one goal in mind—retaining knowledge through interactive lessons at the hand of their teacher.

Through the fog of the boisterous environment of singing and dancing, you don’t see the pain of a teacher with an incurable metastatic breast cancer, and that’s exactly what Harris hopes for.

Diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time in 2019, the first grade teacher had it return in metastatic form by spreading to her sternum in 2021 when she got her dream job at CES.

Her focus, however, remains on the students, fighting through the painful days to serve her purpose and not let the cancer define her.

“I absolutely love what I do,” Harris says. “I feel like it’s my purpose. The best part of it is the children. It is a joy to walk into this room every day, no matter how tired I am, no matter how I feel, sometimes I walk in and go, ‘Oh, I can’t do this today,’ and when they walk in that door, it wipes all of that away. Watching that lightbulb moment, it’s just so exciting to watch them learn and grow.”

For that reason and her engaging method that she continues to bring into the classroom each day, the hometown Calera girl was named this year’s Teacher of the Year at Calera Elementary School, giving her even more clarity on her path.

Finding her path

It was actually Wonder Woman who set Harris on the path to becoming the teacher she is today, and no, not Lynda Carter from the TV series, but a Calera Elementary School kindergarten teacher who looked like her and treated her students in a fashion that made them look at her like a superhero.

“She poured time into me, she invested in me,” Harris says. “She would braid my hair during recess and just show me how much she cared. I thought she was Wonder Woman. She looked like her and everything about her just seemed super. It wasn’t every day original kind of things, she went the extra mile.”

She says that was the start of her growing a love for education that grew with each teacher she had through high school.

“They saw things that I didn’t see in myself,” she adds. “It would inspire me to push myself further because I was extremely shy. They would tell me, ‘No, you can be president of this or you can give a speech on that topic.’ I wanted to be that for children also. I wanted to pour that into students and other people as well. That became what I had to do.”

After graduating from Calera High School in 1993 as part of a class of 44 students, Harris went to college off and on and had her three kids before graduating with a degree in education.

Originally, she didn’t plan to return to the once small town of Calera.

“At first, my sister was a teacher at Calera Elementary, and I thought to myself, ‘Why would anyone want to go back to their hometown?’ But, through the years, there is just something about this town,” she says. “There is such a love for community and still a small-town feel even as it grows.” 

Harris went on to teach fifth grade, third grade and fourth grade in that order at Calera Intermediate School, but her heart continued to pull her back to younger children.

That led to her taking an opportunity at Randolph Elementary School as a first grade teacher to gain experience.

But then, a kindergarten job opened at Calera Elementary School and she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to chase down her dream.

“I went here, my children went here, my grandchildren will go here, so it’s part of my legacy to continue pouring into this school and this town because I want this community to keep growing and for these kids to keep pouring into the community,” Harris says.

Now in her 12th year as an educator, she has spent the previous two years teaching first grade at CES after serving as a kindergarten teacher in 2021.

She had her dream job at her dream school, but it didn’t come without its challenges.

A detour around the roadblock

As the 2021 school year approached, Harris was giddy with excitement after being hired to take on a kindergarten teacher role at Calera, helping her dream become a reality, while her cancer, to her knowledge, was gone.

Then, a week before the school year officially began, Harris got the news that her cancer had spread to the sternum on Aug. 6, 2021.

“It was gone in a sense. I had kind of beat it because it wasn’t showing up in my bloodwork,” Harris says with tears filling her eyes as she remembers the challenging time. “It was so ironic. It was my goal to be here and I find out that my cancer is back at the same time I’m about to start my dream job.”

In that moment, while difficult, she didn’t panic and very quickly told first-year principal Shannon Montgomery what was going on and that she didn’t want the cancer battle to define her, rather that her focus was on making a difference in the lives of the students and living out her dream.

“She has been very open with me about it since the beginning and has never wanted it to define her,” Montgomery says. “A lot of people could have said, ‘I just can’t handle all of this,’ but she said, ‘I want to be here as long as I can be here.’”

Through the adverse situation, she never lost sight of the students and she has rarely missed any days that weren’t for doctor appointments, fighting through exhaustion, pain and mental hurdles to be there for the kids on a daily basis.

“Even when she is out of work, she is constantly concerned about what they need to have to be able to succeed,” says co-worker and first grade teacher Hailey Dolbare. “She is currently battling cancer in her sternum—taking chemo meds and going to multiple doctor appointments—all while she is going above and beyond in the classroom.”

A big reason for the ability to push through, in addition to her drive to make the kids her main priority, has been leaning on her faith and the community support.

“Faith plays a huge part in every part of my life,” Harris says with tears streaming down her face. “It is part of who I am. It’s part of how I respond to them as children, it’s part of how I respond to my co-workers, it’s part of how I respond to conflict, when I’m irritated. It drives me and I see something beyond what’s here. My goal is to hear Him say, ‘Well done.’”

Currently, that’s what keeps Harris going on a daily basis, knowing that her purpose is to make a difference for the kids.

“It keeps me going, but I also believe if I’m going through this, there has to be a reason,” she says. “It’s either something I have to learn or someone around me has to learn. Cancer has transformed me physically, but it has also transformed me as a Christian and a person. Things that used to seem like a big deal to me aren’t a big deal anymore because they really don’t matter. In the grand scheme of things, my purpose on this earth is whatever he has placed on my life, and right now, it’s pouring into this classroom and these children. I feel like each child that is in here is in here for a reason and they’re handpicked to be with me for a reason. Each morning, when we have a moment of silence, I pray over them. They don’t know that, but I pray over them and pray over this school for protection around it and that I will be a positive light in their life.”

It’s that quality that rubs off on the staff and students around her, as they see her working for something bigger than herself.

“Knowing her personally, she is always respectful of people and their views, but she is very vocal in her faith to us as a staff and that is an additional part of who she is,” Montgomery says. “I see that in her. She is very committed and relies on that heavily. She looks to that for strength as a teacher and day to day life, but also the journey she is going through in life. She extends grace.”

Dolbare echoed that sentiment, saying it’s inspiring to see the strength she gains and the grace she has through the challenges.

“She will always tell you, ‘This is not my story, but His story,’” Dolbare says. “When you talk to her about her journey, she tells you that Jesus is right there in the midst of it. She constantly turns to Him. Does she have not so great days? Absolutely! But she keeps fighting every single day and her Eagles’ family rallies around her every step of the way. She is a literal angel on Earth. Heaven will be bigger because of Sara constantly sharing her unremarkable faith throughout her cancer journey.”

Serving her purpose

Standing on top of tables, teaching a fifth grade class at Calera Intermediate School, Harris and her students join together in singing songs at the top of their lungs.

Another interactive activity, she is trying to make sure her students can remember this song to help retain the knowledge.

“I’m not a great singer, but they go along with it,” she says. “I can’t get on the desks anymore because you don’t want the little ones to fall, but when we sing those songs, they remember them. They know what to do. I want them to come in and think learning is exciting.”

Even though she isn’t jumping up on desks anymore, she continues to sing to her best ability, while also working to create other fun activities that include Math Easter Egg hunts, circus days to celebrate learning, transforming her room into a restaurant for “book tastings” and so much more.

“When I shut that door, I will do whatever it takes to get their attention for them to learn,” she says. “I want them to come in and think, ‘What’s next?’ I want them to have a core memory of this is why I know the doubles like two plus two equals four.”

She says she knows it’s her job to do everything she can for the kids because that’s the purpose she is meant to serve.

“They refill me and don’t just see me as someone with cancer,” she says. “I know there have been times that they have to listen to me say I don’t feel good, and they encourage me to keep going, but I try not to even tell them that. I just want to be there to give them all I can and make sure they have a fun day of learning.”

It’s a presence that carries from outside the classroom to start the day and into the classroom throughout the day.

“Her classroom is one of the happiest, most welcoming rooms in our building,” Dolbare says. “She meets all of her children in the hallway with a smile and a hug. She is constantly coming up with ideas on how to engage her students and sharing those ideas with all of our grade level. She is seriously one of the most helpful people you will ever meet.”

Montgomery says that the kindergarten through second grade years are so instrumental, and having a teacher go the extra mile like Harris is something that can set a student up for success for the rest of their education journey.

“She wants to make learning fun,” Montgomery says. “Getting to know her, what sticks out, is she is very dedicated. It’s so easy to kind of just give up and not show up for different reasons, but she shows up and when she’s here, she’s in it for these kids. We always have to teach to the standards. That’s what we always hear in education, but the fact that she takes that extra step to say, ‘Hey, what can I do to make this impactful to the kids?’ Standing on the teacher table, hanging bats form the ceiling just because she was setting up for that learning unit and just giving the kids that little surprise when they walk in the room. That not only makes it fun, but it sticks.” 

Fulfilling her dream

Passing Harris in the hallway one afternoon in the early part of the 2023 school year following dismissal, Principal Montgomery told Harris to come by her office in 10 minutes.

Immediately assuming the worst, Harris began the trek to the principal’s office that we all feared as children, but the news wasn’t the terrifying dream she had made up in her head.

“She thought something was wrong and I knew she would think that,” Montgomery recalls. “She came in and sat down, I had my serious face on and started off with something vague. Then, I just blurted out, ‘You’ve been named Teacher of the Year! She immediately busted out in tears.”

Harris was in shock. She downplayed it and questioned Montgomery through her tears, saying, “Are you sure. I don’t deserve that.”

“It reminds you that everything you do, people are seeing,” she says. “It sounds ugly, but I’m not doing it for them. I’m doing it for God and these children. But, it meant a lot for others to see something in me that they thought I deserved that. I don’t feel like I deserve it, but it is greatly appreciated and it means a lot to me.”

Montgomery says that is just part of her humble nature and that she continually said that it surely couldn’t be her.

“A lot of times, when you’re doing something good, you don’t really see it and it takes somebody else to see it and that was her,” Montgomery says. “She downplayed it and said she isn’t doing something special. They see who she is, they see her as a person and a teacher and that is all a part of being Teacher of the Year.”

For Harris, however, it’s all about giving everything she has to the students because that’s the job she dreamed of.

“Some days are harder than others, but every time I walk in this door, the pain is gone,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve ever missed a day because I don’t feel good. I’ll get up and may not be feeling it that day but keep moving forward because they need me to give them 110 percent, so that’s what I do. If I don’t have my all to give to them, they’re not going to get it.”

With that, it’s a medicine unlike anything else that helps Harris get through the difficult times.

Seeing it click with her students and seeing their love for her is the driving force that inspires her to be the best she can be.

“Their joy about learning, their happiness to see me and the way they love me, it just makes you feel so good and excited about your day,” she says. “Knowing they need me to teach them and they need this, especially in first grade being such a big building block on their education, makes it all worth it. Their smiles, their joy, their happiness to be here and to learn, it makes me feel incredible. It brings me happiness to see their little faces.”

From the kindergarten student who was inspired by her teacher to pour into others to the Teacher of the Year at that same school, Harris is now pouring into others to make a difference in the same facet, and she isn’t letting a terrifying disease keep her from inspiring students the same way she was inspired at the same age.

“According to doctors, the cancer will never go away, but I will work until the half day of my funeral, I can tell you that much,” Harris says. “I will be here as long as I can physically come to school and do it. That could be five years or 15 years. I’m going to keep doing it because I love it and I’m not going to let something like that stop me.”