A group of 20-some kindergartners at North Godwin Elementary sat on the floor in front of Susie Poliski last week, eyes fixed on the book she was reading about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Afterward, they took turns eagerly volunteering to point out which words identified which parts of a worksheet featuring the civil rights leader.
A lot has changed in education since Poliski started her career in 1992.
“Kindergarten has evolved from ‘letter of the week’ activities — a play/interactive curriculum — to full-on reading and writing,” she said.
Rockstar Teachers: There’s just something about certain teachers that draws students to them in droves and keeps them checking in years, even decades later.
While incorporating the best parts of the old way and the new way can be challenging, it’s a joy for this teacher, who has found her niche with kindergartners.
“I like that they are beginning to take letters that some of them didn’t even know on the first day of school, and now they’re putting them together to make words,” she said. “It’s a fun adventure to watch them discover what they can do.”
Poliski began her career as a kindergarten teacher in Cedar Springs in 1992. Since then, she has taught in Wyoming, Hudsonville and Godwin Heights schools, holding her current position since 2011.
Poliski has an elementary education degree from Michigan State University and a master’s in early childhood education from Grand Valley State University. But the basis of her teaching philosophy wasn’t necessarily learned in a textbook.
“The foundation of my teaching really has been based on relationships. I’m watching students that I had my first year grow up, and I stay connected with students — many of whom now have families of their own,” said Poliski, who is friends with many former students and families on Facebook.
Those lasting connections pop up everywhere: While attending the Red Flannel Festival in Cedar Springs last October, Poliski ran into her own kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Clark, with whom she stayed in touch through the years. That same night, she went to see a band. One of the musicians had been her student as a kindergartner.
“Relationship-building for me really began during my years in school from the teachers I had at Cedar Springs, so that really helped form what I do today,” she said. “The connection my teachers had with students really made a difference by showing they cared and wanted to push us to do our best. They took time to get to know us, and our families.”
Those teachers along with her mother, who has an education background, and the book “One Child” by Torey L. Hayden, inspired her to teach. She recalled the words of her high school government teacher, Dave VandePanne: “Whatever you do, go out and make a difference.”
“That’s why I like being a teacher – you are making a difference.”
Poliski is modest about her work. She shared how she invited a couple of special students, who struggled in school, and their families to a Thanksgiving feast with her family last year, bringing the spread to school. North Godwin Elementary Principal Mary Lang said that while many teachers go above and beyond for their students, Poliski goes further.
“As a kindergarten teacher, she makes our families feel extremely welcome in our school,” Lang said. “Susie often will take students on special outings, take students out to dinner, or go visit them at their home. She co-coaches our Girls on the Run program, is a teacher leader in our Leading Educators program and can be found at almost every family night or event our school holds.
“Susie Poliski is the definition of a rockstar teacher.”
When Poliski isn’t teaching, you can find her making the rounds on the Irish music scene, attending festivals, spending time with family or visiting with friends in South Haven.