Growing up in rural Kentucky, Sarah White’s daily pursuit of joy led to her having a fulfilled childhood.
White spent hours playing near the pond by her home with her older sister and younger brother. She loved riding her family’s horses on the many trails surrounding her hometown of Owentown, Ky. As she entered college, White’s main goal in choosing a major to study was that it had to continue filling her life with that same sense of joy.
Her close family friend was a teacher, so White asked her for advice about pursuing a career in education. White didn’t get the guidance she expected.
“She loved teaching, but she told me, ‘Whatever you do, don’t be a teacher,’” White said. “She was like, ‘The hours are long. Try to find joy in something else.’”
White tried to follow her friend’s advice. She initially enrolled in Pre-Med classes at Georgetown College in Kentucky, and later switched to an Environmental Studies major. As part of the bachelor’s program, White taught environmental education courses in a youth camp.
One day, while explaining various types of trees and plants to the group on a nature hike, White felt an instant surge of purpose and passion. She realized that the content she studied wasn’t what provided fulfillment. Her happiness came from sharing that knowledge with eager learners.
“It was almost undeniable,” White said. “I just knew right then that that’s what I was meant to do. I loved it. Working with those kids brought me so much joy and passion. I always like to say that I didn’t choose teaching. It chose me.”
Since then, White has proactively made a choice each day to be an educator who impacts change. At first, that meant making a positive difference in her students’ lives as an eighth-grade science teacher at Royal Spring Middle School in Georgetown, Ky.
Over time, White’s desire for change extended beyond her classroom. After Royal Spring partnered with Summit Learning in 2016, White’s eyes opened to a new way of thinking about education that focused on relationships.
“I saw what an impact we were having in our school and that really fueled my fire to want to make an even bigger impact,” White said. “I became a teacher because I wanted to help set students up for success in life, and now I want to help other schools do the same.”
After 13 years in the classroom, White joined Gradient Learning—the nonprofit organization that offers the Summit Learning program—in 2019 as a School Success Manager. She works closely with school leaders across the country to help them bring meaningful learning to their communities. Her advice to them is simple, yet profound.
“It is all about students being seen and heard,” White said. “Students have to know that they are valued every day. They have to have a voice in the classroom.”
White is given frequent reminders of the impact she’s made through calls and texts from former students. Five years later, they remain excited to share their life’s successes with their eighth-grade teacher.
“Mrs. White helped me in so many ways,” said Megan Moore, a freshman at Georgetown College. “She helped teach me how to manage my time better and how to become an independent learner. I had to push myself every day during my eighth-grade year to accomplish my goals. It has still been useful for college.”
Madison Brumley, a senior at Great Crossing High School in Kentucky, said she felt like she was “part of a family” in White’s collaborative classroom.
“She really cared about us,” Brumley said. “I was allowed to engage in the content and learn at the same time.”
White also keeps in touch with a former student who plays college volleyball at Marshall University in West Virginia and another who is a member of the prestigious Cincinnati Ballet.
“I remember having mentoring conversations with her where we talked about her passion for ballet and now here she is, a professional ballerina,” White said. “It brings me so much joy to see them chase their dreams.”
White’s biggest joys in life come from her sons, Kayson, 11, and Zander, 5, who both love wrestling so much that White bought a 10-foot-by-10-foot wrestling mat for their home. In many ways, the trust she places in her growing boys to stay on the mat (and not break a lamp) when wrestling inside is similar to the trust she had as a Summit Learning educator in a project-based classroom.
“It’s stressful in a different way because you never know what’s going to happen when you release that control as a teacher,” White said. “But when real learning is happening, there is going to be a lot of interaction. Students are going to disagree with one another, and share things they’re passionate about.
“When I saw that happening in my classroom, it made me so excited. That was the joy I’d been chasing.”