Elementary School Teacher Achievement Award winner Cassandra Walden, East Bernstadt Elementary School, East Bernstadt Independent

Cassandra Walden, a kindergarten teacher at East Bernstadt Elementary (East Bernstadt Independent), says teaching is an opportunity to instill curiosity and creativity in young students.

When she began teaching kindergarten in 2019, Walden found students often enter kindergarten with a blank slate, so she’d have to work from the ground up to teach basic foundational skills in reading.

In her master’s degree program at Western Governors University in Millcreek, Utah, Walden researched deficits in early reading skills and created lesson plans to address them. Now, Walden teaches reading through a series of cumulative lessons that focus on consonants, phonemic sounds, vowels and the combination of all. Students actively participate in each lesson.

“Students, because they took a part in their learning, were able to forge a deeper connection to the content,” she said.

In addition to emphasizing active participation in learning, Walden encourages students to make connections between the classroom and their lives at home. She says the most rewarding moment is when students are first able to read, then go home and show their parents and others what they’ve accomplished.

“Students will be so excited to share their reading ability that they will ask to read to the teller at the bank, their Sunday school teacher, their neighbor or their grandparents over FaceTime,” she said. “When students are able to share their reading ability with others, they feel so important and successful.”

Walden hopes to remind others why teaching is important. Because teachers spend so much time with students, they are major contributors to their development. Walden strives to foster kindness in her classroom and teach students to be empathetic and caring from a young age.

“My students are eager to help one another in any capacity. If a student is struggling in class, peers are jumping at the chance to help figure it out. If a student is having a bad day, there is always a friend near to offer a hugs,” she said.