- Sponsorship -

Second-grade teacher: literacy is a civil right

Why I Teach: Sarah Buys-McKenney

Wyoming — Oriole Park Elementary School teacher Sarah Buys-McKenney challenged her second-graders to listen closely as she enunciated sounds.

“I want you to think about the sounds we are using this morning, and you tell me what word I’m saying.”

“T-aw-k. Three sounds,” she said, gesturing to her mouth as students watched her speak.

“Talk!” the class said in unison.

Sarah Buys-McKenney leads reading instruction for her second-graders

While seated on risers in front of McKenney, students went through the sounds in the words “crawl,” while learning a new sound: “aw,” as in claw and pause. They focused on “because” and “sauce” before moving onto blends (“ch, like in chili dog!”).

McKenney was teaching foundational reading skills, a key piece in helping students become lifelong readers. It’s her passion to provide students with every resource possible to be successful in school, from helping them develop those kinds of decoding skills to making sure they have plenty of books that they can relate to.

‘It is a civil right that my kids deserve every opportunity and the best instruction that I can give them.’ 

— second-grade teacher Sarah Buys-McKenney

Bins and shelves around McKenney’s room are filled with books, and she has more on the way. She was recently awarded a $1,000 grant from the Family Fare Supermarket location at 2900 Burlingame Ave. SW to order titles featuring diverse characters and topics, and that are written by diverse authors.

Buys-McKenney has been teaching at Oriole Park for nine years, first as a fourth-grade teacher, then in a split second- and third-grade class. She has “looped” with her first- and second-graders for the past six years, meaning she stays with the same class for two school years. 

She began her career as a history teacher at Grandville High School, where she taught for almost a decade before she focused on raising her children and volunteering for seven years as an educational advocate for Sudanese refugee families. She then became recertified as an elementary teacher and began teaching at Oriole Park. 

She recently talked with School News Network about her commitment to teaching and why she shows up every day, ready to give it her all. 

(This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)

Tell me about the relationships that develop with your students after two full years together? “I always say my favorite thing is when third- and fourth-graders stop in and talk to me about my day. I tell the first- and second-graders, ‘These are the kids I had before you.’ They always say, ‘Next year we get to come back and see you too!’

“I have families whose kids I’ve had back-to-back for four years. So I love that I have those relationships with families too.”

Tell me about the grant you received and your passion for books and making sure you have books that are “windows and mirrors” for your students? “We know that such a huge percentage of our kids need really explicit direct instruction in how to read, and it’s not something our brain does naturally. We have to keep doing that research; we have to keep learning as teachers. It is a civil right that my kids deserve every opportunity and the best instruction that I can give them.”

She explained the concept of “windows and mirrors,” and why they are important at Oriole Park, where students come from diverse backgrounds.

A book that is a mirror, she said, “is one they can hold up and say, ‘This is a book that represents something I do.’ We tend to have books that are not great examples of everyday life in different cultures.”

A book that is a window “allows kids to have a window to look into someone’s culture and understand something that is different or why someone has the beliefs that they have, or why they make choices that they make because it’s part of their cultural belief system.”

Along with picture books and read-aloud books the grant will help her buy books focused on teaching decoding skills that have culturally diverse characters.  

‘(A book that is a mirror) is one they can hold up and say, ‘This is a book that represents something I do.’ We tend to have books that are not great examples of everyday life in different cultures.’

— second-grade teacher Sarah Buys-McKenney

What is the thing that gets you up in the morning and excited about teaching? “I loved teaching history and (high school), but it was always those relationships that were most important to me. I feel like that’s when kids learn, when they feel like ‘This is my family during the day.’ In an elementary setting where I can spend the whole day with kids, I feel like I can build that the most.

“It’s important to me that I’m giving my 100% for them every day. … I so strongly believe that they deserve the best every day.” 

Sarah Buys-McKenney does a ‘funny face’ photo with her second-graders

What are some of the biggest challenges in teaching? “Misconceptions about data from standardized testing in our communities, and also just how (those tests) do not measure what our kids are able to do. There is such a high-stakes pressure placed on those in-the-moment tests that are also not very culturally accepting, and do not represent our kids’ experiences.

“I know how hard we work in this district, how much teachers and administration put into our schools, kids and families, and I just challenge that we don’t put as much or more into our kids and families than any other district, but then we get measured by this very random number.”

She said funding and other equity issues are also challenges.

“Our families are so supportive of education and knowing what it means to our kids in the community. I don’t think we as a larger West Michigan community honor that enough, either.”

What would you say to someone considering teaching as a profession? “It has to be a calling. It has to be your complete passion because there are really hard days and really wonderful days. It (can’t) be something you think might work —  it has to be something that you are all in for, because every kid in front of us deserves someone who is all in.”

Read more from Wyoming: 
Basketball team unites students, promotes inclusion
Nonprofit brings drive-up vision care to schools

- Sponsorship -
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


Related Articles

- Sponsorship -

Issues in Education

Making Headlines

- Sponsorship -


Maranda Where You Live WGVU