An amazing elementary librarian-educator and a highly praised high school math teacher and tennis coach were named Spring Branch ISD’s Elementary and Secondary Teachers of the Year during surprise front-door announcements made on Tuesday, May 12.
Named as the 2020 top district educators are Meadow Wood Elementary librarian Katie McCracken and Stratford High School teacher Crystal Fain.
The two winners, who by happenstance live only several doors apart, were surprised by SBISD Superintendent Jennifer Blaine, Ed.D., at their Nottingham Forest homes on Tuesday morning.
Joining Dr. Blaine were Board of Trustees President Pam Goodson, Principals Lynne Barry of Meadow Wood Elementary and Raymorris Barnes of Stratford High, and Sterling McCall Group’s Mike Sullivan, who is the director of governmental and public affairs with Group 1 Automotive, a related corporate agency.
Despite social-distancing rules in place due to COVID-19, the special door knockings remained fun, joyful moments filled with flower bouquets and balloons, a lease “key” to a new Hyundai, and two big yard signs proclaiming that two SBISD Teachers of the Year reside there.
As SBISD’s 2020 Teachers of the Year, McCracken and Fain also received a trophy-style Golden Apple award, plus a local First Community Credit Union award and $2,000 professional growth stipend from the district.
McCracken and Fain will also soon enjoy the Going the Extra Mile Award sponsored by Sterling McCall Group. This special award includes a complimentary, summertime lease of a new Hyundai Santa Fe through Group 1 Automotive, which also honored both SBISD teachers with a gift basket and $150 gift card.
“We’re excited once again to support SBISD and its Teacher of the Year program winners. We have participated in several partnerships with the school district, but as a grad of Northbrook High School it gives me great and special pride to help give back to the school district where I also went to school,” said Sullivan. He graduated from Northbrook in 1976.
Superintendent Blaine greeted both teachers, both a bit stunned, with flowers, huge smiles and simple words of praise. “We’re so proud of you!” she told both winners on behalf of the district and the Teacher of the Year Committee, which interviewed six finalists.
“We have amazing teachers in Spring Branch,” Dr. Blaine said. “Every single one of them are deserving of this award, but these two teachers have really risen to the occasion. The way they interact with our families and our students, and the way they support kids is second to none. We are so, so proud of them.”
Katie McCracken: Librarian and Teacher
Elementary Teacher of the Year Katie McCracken has been a librarian, PGP (Primary Gifted Program) teacher and campus technology representative at Meadow Wood Elementary since 2018.
Before that, her roles in a Houston ISD elementary school for nine years included literacy coach, dyslexia interventionist, and as a gifted and talented and an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher. McCracken has taught students in kindergarten through third grade during her past 15 years in educational service.
She earned a bachelor of science degree in interdisciplinary studies from Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, and is currently pursuing a master’s in library science from the Texas A&M-Commerce University campus. She hopes to earn her master’s degree this fall.
“As the librarian on my campus,” she said earlier this year, “I have the privilege to collaborate with my community teachers, students and parents on a daily basis. It is through these dynamic and critical interactions that I am able to provide a safe space for everyone to learn, grow, become strong citizens and contribute to the community. Importantly, my role provides me with the opportunity to champion the benefits and enjoyment of continuous learning.”
In her library, McCracken has created an environment rich with learning. In addition to books and digital devices, the school library has a huge Maker Space area, a 3D printer, and Buddha Boards used for creative art and student projects.
Seeking fresh ways to promote learning and reading for all students, McCracken has partnered with area bookstores for visits from children’s book authors, including two events held recently in virtual online settings. She has lead student book clubs during lunch periods, and during the stress of recent weeks even created a “book share” for adult staff.
“Katie, you do so much and exemplify the meaning of SBISD’s core values,” Principal Barry told McCracken at her front doorstep on Tuesday morning. “You are a phenomenal librarian and teacher, a wonderful colleague, and an amazing person!”
Expanding on her remarks, the principal sums up McCracken in this way: “Her dedication to others is both respected and admired. She maintains a positive attitude, meets all deadlines, and is an absolute joy to be around. Her infectious energy and willingness to help in any situation make her a favorite of students, parents, staff and community members. Our [Meadow Wood] Eagles and district couldn’t ask for a better Elementary Teacher of the Year.”
Crystal Fain: Math Teacher, Tennis Coach, College Access Advocate
The adjectives “positive” and “energetic” may have been created for Crystal Fain. She believes that joy is the most important thing she brings to students each day as the district’s Secondary Teacher of the Year is – by her own words – one part competitive tennis coach, one part crazy math teacher, one part student college-access advocate, a super spirited freshman orientation organizer, and “all parts in love with the place that is Stratford High School.”
For the past five years, Fain has taught a Stratford college prep math course preparing seniors for the TSI (Texas Success Initiative) college entrance exam. Before that, she taught geometry for many years.
In addition, she is Stratford’s founding director of the One Goal college access program, which assists students who are first-generation college applicants with essays, applications, financial aid and scholarship opportunities. As head tennis coach, she has worked with more than 100 student athlete, while taking on other duties ranging from co-director of freshman orientation to virtual course instructor.
She joined Stratford after working several years as a senior program coordinator with Genesys Works-Houston, where she guided high school seniors through the college-application process.
She earned a bachelor of science degree in mathematics from Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Va., in 2011. Fain was valedictorian at Huntsville High School, where she graduated years earlier.
In her classroom, Fain is known for singing math songs, making up any excuse to play review “trashketball,” and “being that annoying, peppy teacher that is way too happy about being at school at 7 a.m.” On the tennis court, Coach Fain slow claps before team chants, issues many pep talks, and plans practices around her favorite “volley drill” game.
“I love high school students!” she proclaims. “I love math and tennis. I love bringing joy anywhere I go. Teaching combines many of the things I love the most into one incredibly rewarding job, allowing me to live my best life.”
Her goal in math is for students to realize how fun a much feared subject can be. “When kids laugh and smile in my class, they’ve discovered the impossible – that they’re having fun in a math classroom! These ‘math smiles’ motivate me.”
On the tennis court, her goal is to build community and teach the importance of being active.
“Tennis is one of the few sports in high school that kids can continue long term. My goal is to get them in the healthy habit of daily exercise, and to help them see that it is rewarding and fun.” When classes were recently suspended due to COVID-19, Fain’s students continued to meet fitness goals, with many sharing exercise videos on cell phones.
She held Zoom classes with math students and, in an example of lemonade from lemons, found extra time at home to work with One Goal program students on their personal college essays.
At her front door on Tuesday, Fain was perfectly dressed for her Teacher of the Year moment in white court shorts and a green-and-white Stratford tennis shirt.
“We’re so proud of you. You deserve this!” Dr. Blaine exclaimed. She was joined by Principal Raymorris Barnes, who praised her highly, as did other school principals in her nomination.
“Crystal is very energetic, and she wears the hats of coaching and teaching with ease,” Barnes said. “Crystal is always willing to help students, and picks up other duties that require more of her time to make Stratford the best possible high school. She has a a team player mindset, and she has a great ability to work with minimal supervision and with unwavering commitment for Stratford, and for the success of all students.”
Looking Ahead: Regional Competition
As newly named Teachers of the Year, McCracken and Fain will soon represent the district in regional competition. If successful, they will then compete at the state and the national level.
Campus Teacher of the Year candidates are first nominated by the district’s students, parents, teachers and interested community members. SBISD Teacher of the Year Committee members read and reviewed all Teacher of the Year applications, including candidate-submitted videos.
The committee named six Teacher of the Year finalists. In addition to McCracken and Fain, the SBISD elementary finalists were Clarie Rottino of Woodview and Andrea Gilmore of Memorial Drive; secondary finalists were Kate Waldorf with Spring Branch Middle and Yolanda Matthews-Porter of The Guthrie Center. All four finalists will each receive a $250 cash award.
View the full list of campus Teachers of the Year here.