CHAMPAIGN — During her 19 years in education, Sara Sanders has learned to appreciate students’ strengths, even when they manifest in disruptive ways.
For instance, last year, a student at Franklin STEAM Academy, where she served as principal for 12 years, wouldn’t stop rapping on his desk with his writing utensil in rhythmic beats.
Sanders could have threatened the student with detention or in-school suspension, but she chose a different path.
“One day at lunch, I was like, ‘Dude, what were the beats about?’” Sanders said. “And he was like, ‘I just get these beats in my head, and I want to make sure to capture them.’ The thing was, he was very talented and gifted.
“I was like, ‘Let’s talk about music production and how you can make that a career or a college path.’ I think he appreciated that someone saw that as a strength instead of, ‘We’re going to call your mom, and if you can’t stop doing the beats in here, we’re going to send you to ISS.’”
That comes naturally to Centennial High School’s new principal.
After all, Sanders knows what it’s like to be a student who is considered disruptive. When she attended Jefferson Middle School and Centennial, her social nature wasn’t always appreciated by her teachers, especially in math class, which she never considered her favorite subject.
“I would get detentions — a lot of detentions — for being a little bit too much of a social butterfly,” she said. “I would talk too much. ... I’m sure I got several warnings and I just kept doing it and ultimately I would get a detention and would have to redo the lesson anyway.”
Sanders found plenty of outlets for her talkative personality. She sang in the school’s chorus, wrote for its newspaper and played basketball. She joined the school’s African American Club, even though she isn’t African American, because she wanted to socialize with her friends in the group.
During the spring of her freshman year, Sanders would talk to her friend during the beginning of track practice every day, even though she wasn’t on the team. She became so much of a distraction that the coach gave her an ultimatum: join the team or leave the premises.
That’s how she became the team’s smallest shot-putter, dwarfed by teammates like Gia Lewis Smallwood, who would eventually go on to break the American shot put record and compete in the 2012 Olympics. Sanders, who only lasted one season, enjoyed the bus rides and the team bonding more than the athletic pursuit.
“I like to learn from people, and I like to listen to people,” she said. “I like to hear their stories. I’m a big-story person. I like hearing about people and knowing about people and knowing about their narratives and their background and their experiences.
“That’s always been my nature, from kindergarten through now.”
Sanders graduated a semester early, in December 1998, and enrolled at Parkland College, with ideas of becoming a veterinarian or a police officer or a youth probation officer. She hadn’t considered pursuing a degree in education, even though both of her parents had long careers in the field.
Her mother, Carol Steinman, was a longtime administrator at Parkland and rose to the role of dean and vice president. Her father, Topper Steinman, was a counselor at Jefferson.
“I wanted to be anything but a teacher,” she said. “I saw the time that my dad spent at Jefferson, and there were times when he saw those kids and counseled those kids more than us.
“We never had bad feelings about it, but I just knew the time and energy and commitment it took to do that. I’m like, ‘I don’t know who has that in them.’”
By the time she was preparing to transfer to Illinois State University, though, her mind began to change. At the time, she was pregnant with her first child, which, she said, ”really kicked my thoughts about my future into high gear.”
While taking her first education course at Illinois State, Sanders was assigned to work with a student on the autism spectrum who needed help taking notes.
“It was like, ‘Oh, this makes sense. I’m a teacher,’” she said. “Just in that little bit of time, watching that teacher teach and understanding how this small little gesture (of taking notes) helped. ... For him to be so appreciative and grateful and in awe of that, it was so small to me, but it was so big to him.”
Upon graduating college in 2003, Sanders accepted a teaching position at Franklin. Partially inspired by her mother’s leadership role at Parkland, Sanders quickly earned her master’s degree and after four years of teaching, she became the school’s dean. Four years later, after serving as Franklin’s assistant and associate principal, she became principal.
After 12 years in that role, Sanders decided to take on a new challenge as Centennial’s principal. The position came open unexpectedly — first-year principal Scott Savage resigned in April after a video emerged that appeared to show him engaged in a physical altercation with a student.
Being back at her alma mater has “reawakened my heart and my mind in spaces that I forgot about,” Sanders said. “Because when you’re in a position that you’ve been doing a long time, you know it. You know the beauties of it, you know the beasts of it, and you can just kind of predict some things. I haven’t had to exercise certain parts of my critical thinking or my problem-solving skills like I have.”
In recent years, the children of some of Sanders’ former classmates became students at Franklin. If they haven’t kept up with her whereabouts, those classmates are often surprised to see her sitting behind a desk in the principal’s office.
“They see me in the principal’s office and they’re like, ‘No way. There’s no way,’” she said. “And I wouldn’t have seen myself there, either.”
The personality traits that led her to the principal’s office as a student, though, have become the attributes that make her a successful leader. Her students, she hopes, can take the same trajectory.
“I think talking to students and learning about them is so important,” she said. “And seeing them and observing them in their social groups, and not always observing them in their typical behaviors that we would historically deem negative and turning them into a positive.
“We have students who are very brilliant in areas that we don’t traditionally recognize. Because it may not be math, or it may not be reading. It may not be academic. It could be the arts. It could be people skills. It could be, for lack of a better term, street smarts. But those are all brilliances. And we as adults in kids’ lives have to start changing our mindsets to shift to thinking that these are positives.
“Being the adult in that kid’s life, we have some power to empower them to see that also as a strength, and to use that gift or that talent, and use it for good. And then we guide them into what that could be.”