Grand Rapids — As her first-hour students filed into her classroom, Sherri Kraai greeted each of the 10 sixth-graders with a high five.
“It’s Mrs. Kraai’s birthday!” Brooke Brisco announced from her desk.
Kraai said she was getting a crown for her birthday, paused, then clarified it would be a crown at the dentist.
The only gift she needed, she told them, “is the gift of your learning.”
Her alma mater’s chant “Go Green!” is the theme of Kraai’s classroom: Michigan State University Spartan posters, green plants and vines that frame the white board.
Photos of her family, inspirational plaques and posters ensure that if students’ eyes wander during class, the walls remind them they are loved, to be kind, that life is good and to believe in themselves.
Kraai also has a regular response when she hears students wielding insults in her classroom.
When she hears her students calling each other ugly, she uses it as an acronym. “I tell them ‘You are UGLY: unique, gorgeous, lovely and why? Because you’re you,’” she said. “You have to love on them. This world is way too selfish and this school has the biggest heart.”
‘Like Ms. Frizzle in the Classroom’
Principal Kenyatta Hill-Hall calls Kraai, who has taught sixth- and seventh-grade science at Grand Rapids University Preparatory Academy for 11 years, “the mom of the school” and said she’s “so incredible at what she does.”
One of Kraai’s teaching colleagues likens her to Ms. Frizzle and her magic school bus, “taking her students on adventures and opening their eyes to the world of science and possibilities.”
Said another: “She is known around school for her positive attitude and her engaging classroom.”
Kraai’s colleagues sang her praises and contributed to her receiving the Jean Hamilton Cope Teachers of the Year from the district for grades 6-8.
She was honored alongside Buchanan Elementary second-grade teacher Jill Niewiadomski for grades PK-5, and Union High School biology teacher Nicole Durso.
Kraai said the news still hits her at random times of the day.
“You don’t teach because you try to win awards, but it’s such a blessing to come to work because I love my job,” she said.
A couple of Kraai’s sixth-graders shared what they like about their teacher.
Sarie Lopez-Gonzalez said her favorite thing is Kraai’s personality, and “when I need help with something, she always helps me.”
“When I first got here I didn’t really like science,” Brooke said, “but (Mrs. Kraai) was so nice and cool and makes a lesson so that it’s fun to learn, like planting plants in the summertime. Even if it’s not my favorite subject, she makes it fun.”
Trusting God’s Plan
Kraai said she had no idea she wanted to be a teacher when she was growing up.
Her father’s education had stalled after sixth grade, so when he completed a chaplaincy degree, he credited his daughter for helping him get through school.
“When you get recognized for doing just what you’re supposed to do, you’re living your God-given purpose in life,” Kraai said.
She dipped her toes into teaching with starting a preschool program two mornings a week at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Parish in Grand Rapids
“That program grew to five days a week for a few years, and then I knew I needed more,” Kraai said.
Her original plan was to teach students with visual and auditory impairments, so she learned Braille while earning a master’s degree at Michigan State University. Her interests evolved and she dabbled in occupational therapy, physical therapy and working with older adults in nursing homes.
“I knew when I found what I was meant to be doing, I would know it,” Kraai recalled. “It happened when I was assisting in the blind and deaf classroom at Ken-O-Sha Elementary and the kindergarten teacher asked me to take over their class. That was it.”
She taught third grade at Blessed Sacrament Catholic School, before it consolidated with three other parish schools to form All Saints Academy, then found her way to GRPS.
Empowering Student Teachers
Today, Kraai admits middle school is a “tough age group of students.”
“You need to be supportive, creative, understanding and have a heart for the total student,” she explained. “You have to teach them how to love themselves at that age.”
One way she encourages her students to get involved in what they’re learning is by allowing them to be the teacher for a day.
‘Even if it’s not my favorite subject, she makes it fun.’— sixth-grader Brooke Brisco
Every class period she assigns the role to one student. They sit at a special desk in the middle of the room, pose the question of the day to their classmates and walk around to check work and answer questions.
“It’s a fabulous way to teach,” Kraai said. “You let the kids take over and I sit and just watch. It’s so empowering for them.”
On Jamie Jimenez Gonzalez’s day to be the teacher, he posed the objective of the day — understanding heredity — and led a discussion about Punnett squares until they discovered the outcomes of the feather colors an offspring of two owls would have.
“You have to make it fun and enjoyable so it doesn’t feel like a chore,” Kraai said. “It’s an opportunity to grow with the students, and they make it fun.”
She also attributes a fun learning environment to her fellow teachers and administrative support at Grand Rapids University Preparatory Academy.
“We’re such a well oiled machine, and our leadership is the reason I get to be this creative and go outside the box.”
Beyond the Classroom
In addition to a nurturing family at school, Kraai is grateful for her husband and two kids.
“My family has been so supportive about coming along on this journey with me and are interested in the weird things Mom does,” she said with a laugh.
Her extended family also includes the track and cross-country team she coaches, partnering with teams from Ottawa Hills High School and Grand Rapids Montessori.
Kraai said she has enjoyed every step of her teaching career.
“I’m still so honored to be acknowledged for doing what I love and my purpose in life,” she said. “The older I get, the more I get along [with] and understand students. You get older and wiser.”