Simplified: Susan Thies, a fifth grade teacher at Garfield Elementary School was named the 2024 John W. Harris Teacher of the Year during a ceremony earlier this week. She chatted with Sioux Falls Simplified about what that recognition means to her, her philosophy on teaching and what's changed over her 24 years with the district.

Answers are edited for length and clarity. Responses are quotes from Thies.

What drew you to teaching?

I was married with two kids and working on going to law school. My dad was a lawyer, and sometimes you just follow in your parents footsteps because that's what you know.

  • I took law school admissions exams, and I just wasn't very excited.

My husband one day said, 'You'd be a very good teacher.' I went to a couple education classes, and it went from there. I just fell in love with it.

I went to night school, and I was a little bit older – in my 30s – and the people in my classes were 18 and 19. But it was just perfect.

From there my husband (a Lutheran pastor) was called to New Mexico, and I got my first teaching job teaching first grade.

  • Then he was called to Sioux Falls, and here we are since 2000.

Why elementary school?

I never even thought of middle or high school. It was almost like, 'Oh of course this is what I'll go into.' It was like breathing.

What's your approach to teaching?

My classroom is built on community.

  • We do this together, and we are one community. It's kind of like living with your family for a whole day – we're going to get on each other's nerves. We have different skills, and how are we going to work together.

I'm also a real firm believer in the philosophy of "ubuntu."

  • It's a Swahili word ... (essentially meaning) 'I am because we are.' We are connected because we are human beings, and because of that we need to treat each other respectfully.

We're all human, and that is our starting point.

In your eyes, what role do you play in the lives of your students?

I hope I'm a cross between a cheerleader, someone who encourages and motivates kids, and then on the other hand, I want to be a guide to show them a path.

Teaching isn't an easy job. What's kept you going as long as you have?

I think what’s kept me going is supportive administrators who let me teach the way I do instead of making me into a cookie cutter – that "you will present it this way," or "you will do it this way."

Yes, I follow state standards and district guidelines and curriculum, but I've always had administrators to say (it's OK) if you want to teach it that way.

Classrooms have changed since you started your career – what's been the biggest challenge for you along the way?

Technology has been enormous.

  • I remember thinking email was the dumbest thing – why wouldn't I go next door and talk to somebody? But now, we can't live without it.

And no one wants to say it, but I think behaviors have really ramped up with students. I'd like to say I know why, but I don't – and so that's been hard.

  • There's more disrespect, more language, and so how do you work through that and hold children accountable to be respectful and kind and loving?
  • Now I have to earn their respect, and that's not all bad, but it can be challenging.

I wonder sometimes if there's a correlation between the two, but I don't know.

What does this award mean to you?

It's humbling. I think of all of these different people that I know that are amazing educators, and I don't see myself that way. I don't even see what I do. I just focus on kids and teach.

  • I don't see that in myself, but that's when you have to honor those that see you.

I am humbled, and I'm honored, and I'm grateful, but it's been a really emotional time.

  • The next morning (after the award), I just sobbed. It was just so overwhelming because you feel like, well, what about this person, what about that person? There's so many teachers of the year.

It's been hard for me because I'm a very private person, but I'm so dang honored.

Do you have any advice for younger teachers or those considering the profession?

If they're considering it, I would welcome them to come and visit a classroom for the entire day. Just watch the energy, the excitement, the frustration.

  • Don't just come for an hour and say, 'that was really neat,' come and see a full day.

And for teachers that are new in the profession: find your people.

  • Find those teachers that are going to be positive and who are willing to share with you and help grow with you.

Is there anything else I didn't ask you about that you wanted to mention?

I have to give a shoutout to our school librarians.

They've come under fire, and they're trying to make sure that every child sees themselves in books.

  • It doesn't matter the color of your skin, or the language you speak, or who you love, you should be able to go into a library and see a book that looks like you. I do that in my classroom.

I am also so proud of all the teachers in the country that worked through COVID.