Top teacher: Hampshire High School history teacher dives right into school community

When Sarah Thomas started teaching, her father, a former Elgin area school administrator, offered some advice.

"When you have the opportunity to do something for a school, you say yes," Thomas said, recalling her father's advice.

She's done just that throughout her 15-year career.

"She just has an amazing personality, energy and is a great leader in our school," Hampshire High School Principal Brett Bending said.

Thomas, who grew up in Elgin and now lives in Geneva, decided to follow in her father's footsteps late in her college career. She had initially planned to go into forensics, but after discovering her love of history she decided she wanted to teach. Though it was a little late to switch majors, Thomas pursued a master's degree so she could follow her newfound passion and teach history.

  Hampshire High School teacher Sarah Thomas enjoys a presentation by one of her AVID students. Paul Valade/

She spent the first six years teaching at St. Edward High School and St. Joseph Catholic School in Elgin before joining the teaching staff at Hampshire High School.

During her nine years at Hampshire High School, Thomas has taught advanced history courses and taken on a variety of roles outside the classroom.

Until this year, Thomas was part of the varsity basketball coaching staff, coaching girls basketball first and moving to the position of an assistant coach with the varsity boys basketball team. She was the first woman to coach the school's boys basketball team.

Though she's not coaching this year, Thomas is involved in developing a mentoring program that pairs freshman students with older high school students, Bending said. She's also been involved in a diversity, equity and inclusion team, a curriculum writing team and other learning groups.

  Hampshire High School teacher Sarah Thomas talks with the AVID students. Her students say they like that she is approachable and that she keeps her classes fun and interactive. Paul Valade/

Being involved in a variety of school groups has helped her become more diverse. She also makes a point to see her students outside the classroom - whether it's at a basketball game, the school play or other events.

"It gives you another layer to build on relationships and rapport," said Thomas, who was named District 300 Foundation's Educator of the Year in 2022.

"It's nice to see students being able to thrive in school, and not just in academic capacities."

Her involvement, both in and out of the classroom, has made a difference to her students.

"I love how Miss Thomas is so devoted to her students and building real relationships with her students instead of just being there for a class period," said Lola Walsh, a junior who is in Thomas's AVID class,

  Hampshire High School AVID student Julian Soto, a junior, shows his organizational planner he uses on his phone to teacher Sarah Thomas during class. Thomas works with students in the AVID class on organizational and study skills. Paul Valade/

In the classroom, Thomas's students appreciate the effort she makes to connect. She starts out each of her classes with a few seconds for mindfulness. She and her students take a moment to breathe and focus on the class ahead.

And while history can be filled with dates and names to remember, Thomas tries to connect that information to current topics as well. Advance Placement U.S. History students, for example, recently worked on their own political cartoons after discussing how political cartoons were used in the late 1800s to take on a New York City political boss.

"She makes the learning environment very approachable," said junior Eric Brown. "She makes things fun ... she doesn't just read off the board."

  Hampshire High School teacher Sarah Thomas talks with students at the start of a class. Thomas starts each of her classes with a few quiet moments to focus on the work ahead. Paul Valade/

And while Thomas wants her students to learn the materials, she says the most important lessons she can teach don't involve memorizing dates of wars or names of world leaders.

"All of my students are going to go out in the world and need to utilize resiliency, perseverance and grit," she said. "I hope those are the things they can take away from my classes."

That hope isn't lost on her students.

"She's taught me that you should always consider every option in every situation, and you should definitely give people the benefit of the doubt," said Josh Provenzano, a junior who is in Thomas's AVID and AP U.S. History courses, adding "and kindness is a virtue that we should have."

• • •

Curriculum vitae: Sarah Thomas

Name: Sarah Thomas

School: Hampshire High School

Occupation: Social Studies teacher

Age: 37

Residence: Geneva

Education: Bachelor of Arts in sociology and history from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; master's in Teaching and Learning from National Louis University

Activities: Student Ambassador and Ignite Student Mentorship facilitator; HHS Assistant Varsity Boys Basketball Coach, 2019-2022; HHS Assistant Girls Varsity Basketball Coach 2014-2019

• • •

Tips from a top teacher

Sarah Thomas initially planned to be a forensic scientist, but discovered her love for history and teaching late in college. She pursued a master's degree to teach, and today teaches advanced social studies courses, including AP Human Geography and AP U.S. History, at Hampshire High School.

Here are some words of advice Thomas offers to other teachers:

• To all the new teachers out there - when it comes to planning, don't stress, just stay one day ahead of the game. Lean on veteran teachers to help you!

• To all my friends in teaching, being an educator is an important part of our identity. However, it's not our only identity. Don't forget to put time and energy into all things outside of teaching that make you happy. It's the only way for us to create longevity in our careers. (Thomas is a pro at horseback riding and makes time on her way home from work to visit her horse.)

• Pro tip: Get your outfit ready the night before. It's one less thing to worry about on these early mornings.

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