Jessica Saum, a K-4 special education teacher at Stagecoach Elementary School in Cabot, was named the 2022 Arkansas Teacher of the Year Oct. 13.
Her selection was announced in a surprise ceremony at the school led by Secretary of Education Johnny Key. A teacher in the district since 2018, she was one of four Arkansas Teacher of the Year semifinalists.
Saum had previously been named the 2021 Cabot Public Schools Teacher of the Year and had been recognized as the 2020 314th Airlift Wing Key Spouse of the Year for her volunteer work at the Little Rock Air Force Base. Her husband, Lt. Col. Shane Saum, has been stationed there and is now serving a year in Portugal.
Her term begins July 1, 2022. In addition to traveling the state representing teachers, she will serve as a non-voting member on the State Board of Education. She said she hopes to partner with leadership at the Little Rock Air Force Base to serve military families and would like to connect with Dr. Jill Biden, the nation’s first lady, in Biden’s Joining Forces initiative supporting military families. She also would like to push for more inclusion opportunities for special education students.
At Cabot, Saum partners with teachers and community members to provide hands-on lessons and allow her students to learn with general education students. She collaborated with a gifted and talented teacher to teach about earthworms and with the 314th Airlift Wing to create a virtual field trip aboard a C-130, the Air Force’s large troop transport plane. She brought a sugar plum fairy from Ballet Arkansas to read “The Nutcracker” via Zoom, and she organized a camping day event for her students. She also planned a Special Olympics event.
“Special education students should not be treated as ‘guests at the table’ but included as meaningful members of a larger learning community,” Saum wrote in her Teacher of the Year application, according to a press release from the Department of Education. “Ensuring exposure to grade-level peers and curriculum should be the standard, not the exception.”
Speaking to reporters after being named Teacher of the Year, Saum said, “Every child deserves for us to believe in them. Every child deserves an opportunity to prove themselves, to achieve, and that we have to assume competence from them. We don’t want to assume that they can’t do something. Let’s give them the opportunity.”
Her principal, Carol Skiba, said, “She’s just a natural, a natural teacher. Some people just come by it naturally, and some people learn to teach, and she’s just a natural. And it’s really just her heart for kids and for people in general.”
Saum received a $14,000 cash award from the Walton Family Foundation for being named Teacher of the Year after receiving $1,000 for being a state semifinalist and $1,000 for being a regional finalist. She can apply to be the National Teacher of the Year. Saum said she hopes to achieve that honor.
The other semifinalists were Allison Dolan of the Don Tyson School of Innovation in the Springdale School District, Jil’Lana Heard of Lake Hamilton High School in the Lake Hamilton School District, and Vickie Lewis of NewStart Academy ALE in the Wynne School District.
Saum learned she had been named Teacher of the Year during a surprise reveal at a pep rally at the school. She and other teachers were blindfolded and asked to identify props related to the book “Charlotte’s Web,” which students across the school are reading. Saum was last and given a blue ribbon. After her turn was over, she was instructed to turn and face Key, who announced her as the Teacher of the Year.
Waiting to congratulate Saum were her parents, who had traveled from her native South Carolina. Also there were four past Teachers of the Year and the current one, Susanna Post with the Fort Smith School District. Her husband sent a recorded message from Portugal.
Saum said the planned pep rally gave her an inkling of what might happen.
“The pep rally seemed a little bit suspicious, but I just could not accept that that’s really what was going to happen,” she told reporters.
For Saum, 38 and a mother of two young children, teaching is a second career, and she has not been teaching long. Earlier she was a skin care specialist working at a day spa. During a deployment, another military spouse who was a speech pathologist opened her eyes to special education as a profession. She finished her teaching degree at Arkansas State University in 2011 during her husband’s first assignment to Arkansas and then worked as a one-on-one paraprofessional for a student at a Department of Education school while they were stationed in Germany. When they returned to Arkansas in 2016, she worked part-time as an early childhood interventionist and then was a preschool teacher at the Little Rock Air Force Base. Then she started her current job working with special education students.
“This is where I’m meant to be,” she said. “These are the children I’m meant to work with and lives I’m meant to help change.”