Teacher of the Year finalist from Elk Grove is a 'risk taker' in the classroom

 
 
Updated 9/10/2018 6:38 AM
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  • Sara Magnafichi, a first-grade teacher at Admiral Byrd Elementary School in Elk Grove Village, works with Hannah Deacon during a reading lesson. Magnafichi is a top 10 finalist for Illinois Teacher of the Year.

      Sara Magnafichi, a first-grade teacher at Admiral Byrd Elementary School in Elk Grove Village, works with Hannah Deacon during a reading lesson. Magnafichi is a top 10 finalist for Illinois Teacher of the Year. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Sara Magnafichi starts the class day at Admiral Byrd Elementary School in a "morning circle," where her first-grade students talk about how they're feeling. The daily ritual is part of social and emotional learning lessons valued by Magnafichi.

      Sara Magnafichi starts the class day at Admiral Byrd Elementary School in a "morning circle," where her first-grade students talk about how they're feeling. The daily ritual is part of social and emotional learning lessons valued by Magnafichi. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Sara Magnafichi, a first-grade teacher at Admiral Byrd Elementary School in Elk Grove Township Elementary District 59, is a top 10 finalist for Illinois Teacher of the Year.

      Sara Magnafichi, a first-grade teacher at Admiral Byrd Elementary School in Elk Grove Township Elementary District 59, is a top 10 finalist for Illinois Teacher of the Year. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • First-grader Alaina Buchmann listens to teacher Sara Magnafichi during class at Admiral Byrd Elementary School in Elk Grove Village.

      First-grader Alaina Buchmann listens to teacher Sara Magnafichi during class at Admiral Byrd Elementary School in Elk Grove Village. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Students in Sara Magnafichi's first-grade class begin each day in a "morning circle" as part of her instructional focus on social and emotional learning. The teacher at Admiral Byrd Elementary School in Elk Grove Village is a top 10 finalist for Illinois Teacher of the Year.

      Students in Sara Magnafichi's first-grade class begin each day in a "morning circle" as part of her instructional focus on social and emotional learning. The teacher at Admiral Byrd Elementary School in Elk Grove Village is a top 10 finalist for Illinois Teacher of the Year. Rick West | Staff Photographer

When she's not in the classroom, Sara Magnafichi is busy meeting children's literature authors to invite them to her school, talking with parents at PTO meetings, or learning new teaching skills at professional development sessions.

It was during one of those training events at the Elk Grove Township Elementary District 59 administration building that Magnafichi couldn't help but be a bit distracted by a storm rolling through the area.

"She said, 'Kelley, can I get to a phone?'" said Kelley Zerfahs, who recently retired as the district's assistant superintendent for human resources. "'I want to tell my sub what to say to the kids because the lightning detector things go off and I have a few who are really afraid.'

"It was more important to her to know her students would feel safe without her there. She took care of that and came right back," Zerfahs said. "She's just amazing."

The personal relationships Magnafichi builds with each of her students and their families is how many in the district, and at Admiral Byrd Elementary in Elk Grove Village, have come to know her.

Her focus on improving students' social-emotional lives is also one reason why Magnafichi is a top 10 finalist for 2019 Illinois Teacher of the Year. The winner will be announced Oct. 20 by the Illinois State Board of Education.

It's all part of the educational skill set she's developed over the course of 13 years at Byrd -- most of them as a first-grade teacher -- and from a young age when she knew she wanted to be a teacher.

Zerfahs has seen Magnafichi grow into her role as an educator and lifelong learner, first as a kindergarten teacher at Rupley Elementary in Elk Grove, and more recently as a co-worker and collaborator at the district office.

"She really builds relationships with kids," Zerfahs said. "She gets to know every kid. That's everyone's goal, but she does it at the highest level."

At the start of each school day, Magnafichi's students gather in a "morning circle," a practice adopted in all elementary classrooms across District 59 over the last three years as a key tool for developing students' social and emotional skills.

"Good morning. How are you? It's going to be a good day. Yes, it will," Magnafichi says in a singsong voice to her students during one recent class day.

Many students give a thumbs-down. They're tired.

"We can be tired, but we're still going to do a good job," she replies.

The daily group circles -- at the start and close of each day -- reinforce the hourlong, weekly social and emotional learning sessions at each district school on topics like the value of fairness and giving compliments.

Those skills go hand in hand with traditional academic lessons, Magnafichi says, and are embedded throughout her class day.

"All the subjects are connected," she says. "It's not just math time and reading time and writing time. Everything kind of builds upon itself."

Magnafichi meets one-on-one with each student every week, and stays connected with parents on the Seesaw digital app, where both teacher and parent can give feedback on the student's work.

She also leads service projects, including a blanket donation for patients at Amita Health Alexian Brothers Women and Children's Hospital and a pop tab collection for Ronald McDonald House in Winfield.

Mary Ellen Esser, principal at Byrd school who nominated Magnafichi for the state honor, called her a "risk-taker" who isn't afraid to fail and try new things.

She's well-known and respected on the district level, Esser says, but also in outside education circles through her networking at summer author camps.

"As we're serving our students with increasing needs, she's the kind of teacher you want your own child to have," Esser said. "It's not just a job for her. It's more like a vocation. It's evident in everything she does."

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