Crystal Apple winner’s most valuable lesson? Kindness matters in everything

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Jessica Sydow, a fifth grade teacher at Clear Lake Elementary School, was honored with a Crystal Apple from the Salem-Keizer Education Foundation earlier this month. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

Jessica Sydow, a fifth grade teacher at Clear Lake Elementary School, was honored with a Crystal Apple from the Salem-Keizer Education Foundation earlier this month. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

At the end of every school year, Crystal Apple honoree Jessica Sydow’s fifth grade students leave her classroom with a pair of marbles.

It’s her way of letting students know she is still rooting for them even when they aren’t elementary school pupils any longer. Each student is charged with returning one marble after their last day of eighth grade, and the second is to be returned after their high school graduation. The practice is an extension of one of the lessons she tries to impart on her students before making the leap to middle school and beyond: kindness matters.

“We’re seeing kids that are more and more fragile. They need those needs to be met before the learning can begin. To be the one modeling the behavior is a big responsibility,” she said. “If I have a top-down approach with them, they will assume that with each other.”

Sydow was selected for the Crystal Apple, awarded by the Salem-Keizer Education Foundation honoring excellence in education, earlier this month after 14 years at Clear Lake Elementary School. She’s been both a teacher and a media specialist in her time there.

Sydow spent time teaching first grade as a student teacher, but it was fifth grade that “felt right. I like having the opportunity to help prepare them for the academics of middle school, but also from an emotional standpoint,” she said.

That requires getting to know each student on a personal level, which is also part of what drew her to teaching in the first place. Sydow entered into college undeclared, but found her way to teaching when classes on developmental psychology and child psychology sparked a flame she’s been fanning ever since.

“Kids that come to school ready to learn make our job easy, but the ones who don’t make our job that much more important. It means getting at the core of who they are and what motivates them to stay engaged,” she said. “I love having kids think and talk about things that they haven’t thought or talked about before.”

Without crafting a foundation of personal connection, Sydow said, students won’t be open to the possibility of learning. She knows the results firsthand. All the lessons she remembers from college came from teachers who knew her as more than a number.

The nomination for the award came at a challenging time for Sydow. She missed a large portion of last spring due to the birth of her first child.

“I felt a little out-of-the-loop and disconnected. I felt such different pulls, and I didn’t think I was balancing all of it well,” Sydow said. “To be nominated for the award at this time, by my colleagues, it was a reminder that I was gone, but not forgotten.”

She’s been overwhelmed by well-wishers of late, but she’s not letting it go to her head. Another display of that whole kindness matters attitude.

“There are so many that deserve the recognition of the award, hundreds. And they all deserve to feel the way I’ve felt the past couple of weeks,” she said.

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