We Don't Meet, We Exceed

By Brad McEwen

I’d say it was probably two, three minutes, at most, into our recent chat that I knew there was something special about Sarah Holloway, and that she was my kind of person.

I certainly had an inkling that I might like her—considering my affection for teachers and their righteous mission to change lives, and the due to the fact that I had recently seen the Dougherty High School teacher and Instructional Coach receive the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce’s Albany Under 40 Young Professional of the Year Award at the organization’s recent annual meeting.

But as if often the case, that gut feeling wasn’t crystalized into fact until I had spent a little time with Sarah investigating what makes the young educator tick and hearing a little bit about her journey from an inquisitive young girl to beloved high school teacher and mentor.

“I didn’t know that I would love it,” Sarah said about her introduction to teaching. “At first I wanted to be an OBGYN.

“I was always interested in the birth of a baby. My mind couldn’t wrap around it. As a little girl, I would watch that show, “The Baby Story” when they were getting ready for the baby to come and they would go to the hospital. I would just be like, ‘This is so interesting.’

“I went to college [right her at Albany State University] and they were like, ‘You’re going to have to take four Spanish classes,’” Sarah continued. “I took my first Spanish class and was like, ‘Oh no, I can’t do this.’”

Undeterred by that realization, the high performing and positive-minded Sarah simply drew on a past experience she enjoyed and decided she’d just change her career path. But at that point, the college student still didn’t realize how that decision would affect her long-term.

“I loved learning as a little girl,” Sarah explained with a smile. “I was the type that probably would be a teacher’s pet, sit in the front of the classroom, help grade papers, go get mail for the teachers from their boxes. I loved all of that. So, I was like, ‘Well, I’m just going to be a principal. I can’t be an OBGYN, so I’ll be a principal.

“Well, I went to my advisor and I was like, ‘How do I become a principal?’ And she said, ‘Well, you have to teach first.’ And I was like, ‘Teach!?’ And she said, ‘Yes, you have to teach at least three years.’ So, I just said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’

“So, I went through the ropes of becoming a teacher but still did not know I would fall in love with it. I didn’t know it was going to be my passion.”

Once in the classroom, like most new teachers, Sarah said she was sort of focused on herself, her own performance. And as had usually been the case in her life, she had immediate success, even if that success was hard for her to see at first.

“At first I was nervous,” Sarah said. “I taught English and I loved English. Back then it was still CRCT [a standardized test given throughout the state] and I had 94% of my kids pass the test. But me, Sarah, I was trying to see, ‘Well, what happened to the six percent?’ My principal was looking at me like, ‘Girl, are you serious!? That’s amazing! This is your first year teaching!’

“But I was still, ‘Give me those names of the kids who didn’t pass. Let me see why they didn’t pass, what happened to them.’

“I couldn’t celebrate that 94%. I’m trying to find out what happened to the six.”

That need to know what happened and her desire to do even better immediately paid dividends as Sarah had 98% of her students pass the CRCT during her second year teaching. But the experience also had an interesting affect on the young educator.

Although her pursuit of greatness began as part of her innate desire to perform and exceed expectations for herself, by the end of that second year, that focus had truly shifted and she realized she’d been truly bitten by the teaching bug.

“I just loved going to that classroom every day, making an impact on those young generations to come,” Sarah explained. “I don’t know, it just came easy to me. I just felt like I had a big responsibility and that it was not just teaching content, but to teach them to be productive citizens and to have character and to care about your work and not only just you; how to care about others and what you say.

“It was just so many things and I found myself becoming more than just a teacher. I’m a counselor or if they’re getting into it I’m a mediator. It was just so much.

“And I loved it.”

At that early point in her career Sarah was teaching middle school and commuting every day from her home town of Albany to Americus, and it wasn’t long before she realized she needed to find something closer to home. Spending 45 minutes behind the wheel each morning and then again each evening eventually took its toll and Sarah realized a change was needed.

She just didn’t know that change would mark the beginning of a fruitful professional relationship and set her on course to becoming a beloved high school teacher back in Dougherty County.

“I came to a job fair and Albany Middle hired me and they said, ‘We don’t have an English position,’ and I thought that was the end of the world,” Sarah said. “I’m like, ‘I have to teach English. That’s all I know!’ But of course, middle grades you’re certified to teach in two areas. So, I said, ‘Well, let me dust this brain off and get in here and see what I can do.’

“And then I fell in love with Social Studies.”

In addition to her move to Albany Middle igniting her love of teaching social studies, the move also connected her with current Dougherty High principal Eddie Johnson, who is very much a kindred spirit.

“He came my first year there because I think that the principal left in December and then he came that same month,” Sarah said of meeting Eddie, who’s affectionately known as EJ to those educators who have worked with him. “At first I was like, ‘Okay, it’s new for me, it’s new for him. We’re about to see.’ But oh my goodness, Mr. Johnson was so supportive right from the start.

“He took us to Ron Clark and my teaching style changed forever. I came back walking on tables, singing, chanting. When I went to the Ron Clark seminar he was on top of the tables and he had a little boy who was a teacher’s assistant and he was up teaching. I said, ‘I can do that.’ So, I came back, painted my walls blue because the color blue gets their brains stimulated.

“People were like, ‘What is she doing!?’ My teaching style would never be the same after that. I would not have known a school like that could exist. It really changed me.

“When I came back the first thing I did, I went to Lowe’s,” she continued. “I got my husband and was like, ‘come on, we’re going to paint this room.’ I put up colorful maps. We were teaching the Middle East, Africa. I had a colorful map and a blank map. Then after a while I took the colorful one down they had to know where everything was on the blank map. And they would get there just like in Ron Clark.

“It was fun. We were singing, making it fun.”

Which, as far as Sarah is concerned, is one of the keys to inspiring a love of learning in students.

“A lot comes from kids loving the classroom,” Sarah pointed out. “Because kids don’t want to leave. There’s a standard. You have to have your work done when you come in my room.

“I have a slogan that says, ‘We don’t meet; we exceed.’ When you take a test and you make a 70 you don’t say, ‘Oh yes, I made a 70. I passed. Ok, next.’ No, we need to go back and see what you got wrong and try to improve. We have a standard.

“But we make it fun and the kids know they are safe there. They know I care.”

In fact, the notion of showing the children that they are cared for is one of the key elements to Sarah’s teaching style. By establishing that caring relationship aside from simply performing well on assignments, Sarah said she’s been able to truly have an impact on the lives of students beyond just learning the required content.

“It was a really, really good experience at Albany Middle,” she said. “I had my kids wearing blazers. I branded my name, my class, Holloway’s Academy. I had t-shirts and blazers. Then I put on lunch and learns in the library once a year.

“Their parents would come see them and they would sing songs. And what they were realizing was the songs they were singing were our (academic) standards. We would take whatever the students had to learn, and because I don’t really listen to their type of music, I would be like, ‘Give me one of the songs that’s out there.’ They’d say, ‘Drake.’ And I’d put an instrumental of that song on with the beat and we would make words out of what we were studying.

“Maybe it was these types of religions we’re studying; so, I’d say, ‘Let’s put Christianity, or whatever, Islam, into a song.’ When they would get to the tests, whatever test, whether I gave it to them or the state test, they’re bobbing their heads. I’m like, ‘You can’t sing it out loud now, just in your head.’ I got a call from downtown one time when the scores came out and they said I had the highest scores in the Dougherty County School District.”

Of course, as is often the case in life, enjoying that success was somewhat short-lived, as it wasn’t long after that Sarah learned Principal Johnson was leaving Albany Middle to take the reins at Dougherty High.

Fortunately, as is EJ’s style, he knew Sarah’s ability to inspire students would translate to high schoolers, even if her own fears of teaching that age had her doubting.

“When I heard he was leaving, he came here and told me,” Sarah said. “And he was like, ‘What do you think about teaching high school?’ And I was like, ‘Oh I never thought I’d teach high school, but if you’re going, I’m coming.’ He left in December. I finished out the year and then I did a transfer and came here.”

Sarah admitted she had previously been nervous about teaching high school students, worrying that her small stature and relative youth might put her at a disadvantage when teaching older students not much younger than her.

“I really felt like high school was going to be tough,” Sarah admitted. “I thought it was going to be like, ‘Ooh, I don’t know. They might be taller than me or bigger than me.’”

Turns out that worry was for naught.

“Well, people already mistake me for being a kid in the middle school,” Sarah said with a laugh when describing her transition to high school. “I’ve got these mules on and some jeans and a Dougherty shirt and I’m looking like them. Teachers are asking me from behind, ‘Where’s your hall pass?’ The I turn around and it’s ‘Oh, I’m sorry Mrs. Holloway.’

“I was nervous because I didn’t know if they would buy into my teaching style,” Sarah continued. “But one of my friends was like, ‘Well Sarah, everybody loves music. No matter what age, everybody loves music. You could go to Dougherty and do the same thing you were doing at Albany Middle.’

“I did it and it worked. Now my high schoolers are on top of tables. We’re singing, we’re dancing. And I think it’s more impactful in high school because they’re getting ready to experience the real world. Life is out there and it’s waiting, ready or not. There are some not so good people out there. You have to be the one to make good choices in the crowd. All of that matters.

“And it’s seemed to work out in my favor, I am thankful.”

Despite her initial fears about making the transition to high school, Sarah said she ultimately knew it would all work out, mainly due to her strong faith and the lessons she learned growing up. She knew if her motivations were honest and her heart was in the right place, success would follow.

From the outset of our conversation, Sarah repeatedly referenced her strong connection to her Christian faith, and perhaps more importantly, the important lessons about service she learned from her mother-- including those lessons about making personal sacrifices and facing fears in order to love and care for others.

“We grew up in a close-knit house, going to church and knowing what was right and what was wrong,” Sarah said matter-of-factly. “I grew up in a house with my mom, my stepdad—he was like a dad to me—and I have three brothers and one sister.

“I grew up with those values of God first and also just treat people the right way. My mom, she worked hard even prior to meeting my stepdad. She worked hard and she loved her kids. We’d have a good time. We maybe didn’t have much, but she made the most of what she had.

“She was always there and supportive,” Sarah continued. “I feel like I got a lot of her traits. She loved to celebrate people, loved to give love, just loved to give. I know a lot of people who say that, but she really, really does. She gave up her job to do mission work.

“It’s been over 10 years since she left Phoebe to do mission work to see about the homeless and feed the homeless—not just on the holidays but every day, every chance she’d get. So, I grew up caring about people and being passionate about doing the right things. It all goes back to my mother.”

Not only have those guiding principals helped Sarah excel in her role as an educator and mentor, but they’ve also served her well in her personal life too.

Sarah said she met her husband, fellow educator and sixth grade science teacher at Terrell County Middle School Cordarial Holloway, while studying at Albany State, and it was their shared love of helping others that helped bring them together. Both remain active in their church and the community, while also raising their son, Cody.

While becoming a parent has definitely also had an impact on how Sarah approaches her job, she continually stressed the importance of her faith and her church in helping her maintain the energy needed to continually inspire young minds, even when faced with some of the difficult life circumstances many area students are facing.

“Definitely my church,” Sarah said when asked about her greatest support beyond family. “We have team meetings where we meet once a week and we talk it out. We just digress and we talk about all the stress of life and everything.

“It’s almost like getting gas in your tank. You go get filled up as you get low throughout the week. You want to please God and you want to do what’s right and there’s so many things out there that want to sway you the other way. But we just talk through it and get filled back up.”

As the husband of a fellow Dougherty County educator, and as someone who shares Sarah’s desire to see the Albany area community and its residents continue to grow and find success, it’s refreshing to know there’s fantastic folks like Sarah Holloway out there giving their all to make a difference in the lives of others.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen 

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