Kids all over the world grow up playing school with their friends, but few take the pretend classroom to the level that Katie Crowder, Salem’s 2023 Teacher of the Year, did when she was a young girl.
“Growing up, I had a classroom set up in my bedroom to the point that I had a whiteboard, a lesson plan book and even one of the old-style overhead projectors my parents got from a yard sale,” she says.
“Yes, and I mean, it was the real deal,” she says. “I would tell my brothers if they would be my students for 20 minutes then I would go outside and play football with them. Needless to say, we had lots of principal visits when they were my students.”
These days the fifth-grade math and science teacher at South Salem Elementary School has so much respect from her students and teaching peers that office visits are a thing of the past.
“Katie has been such an asset to the South Salem staff, and she has become a faculty leader who is willing to share her ideas with everyone,” says Margaret Humphrey, former South Salem Principal who hired Crowder. “Katie has a phenomenal ability to work with even the most difficult of students, and she is one of the most compassionate and understanding individuals I have ever met.”
“Mrs. Crowder is the type of person you want teaching your own children,” says Laura James, South Salem Principal. “She is a genuine, beautiful person inside and out with an endless heart that impacts all that she does, and touches everyone she meets. She feels like family and promotes a family dynamic in her classroom.”
Crowder will quickly tell you that much of her instructional methodology was observed and gleaned from the many outstanding teachers and coaches she encountered while matriculating through the Salem school system.
“As soon as I walked into Ms. Oetgen’s kindergarten class at West Salem, I knew that I wanted to be a teacher,” says Crowder. “She fostered my love of school right from the start. Each year, she would invite me back to read to her students, giving me my first glimpse of what it would be like to be in the classroom as a teacher."
Oetgen’s influence was so great, she was invited to be a distinguished guest at her prized pupil’s wedding.
Crowder’s passion to teach only intensified at Andrew Lewis Middle School where she earned the Wolverine award that is given to the school’s outstanding eighth grade student. Once at Salem High School, her career path was in full motion with Early Childhood Education classes and internships.
“I have been fortunate to have a teacher every year who has fostered my love for teaching and learning,” she says. “In high school, I learned under Debbie Stratton in the Early Childhood Education program, and I was able to do an internship with Donna Cogar and Patrice Sanders at West Salem. So, every single year I have had someone ignite the fire inside of me to become a teacher.”
Crowder began her professional classroom career at Berkeley Glenn Elementary in Waynesboro where she taught both fourth and second grades. In 2014, she was hired to teach fifth grade back in her hometown.
“I have the opportunity to make a difference in so many lives each day,” she says. “I have 53 kids who come to me each day to learn math, but it is much more than math and what we learn inside these walls. Some days are more exhausting than others and maybe not as positive, but I know that each day I can make a difference and do for them what my teachers did for me.”
The former Katie Schwizer graduated from Salem High School in 2005 with both academic honors and the prestigious B’nai B’rith athletic and achievement award on her resume’. At James Madison University, she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, captured the education department’s distinguished scholar honor, and discovered her future husband, Marcus. The two met in a freshman science for education class and began dating two years later.
“Our relationship really started our junior years in college and during our graduate year, we both studied and taught in South Africa,” she says. “We flew into Johannesburg and then drove six hours north to a town called Venda.”
Their accommodations were anything but resort like. They lived with a family in a modest home where the bathroom was literally a hole in the ground outside.
“It was just an amazing and humbling experience that made us realize how blessed and fortunate we are,” she says. "It also showed us how much they treasured education and reminded us of the impact education can have. To this day, this experience remains one of the most meaningful teaching experiences in my life."
Crowder is quick to recall how she and Marcus took a suitcase full of worn-out books to South Africa to create a makeshift library for the children who could barely understand English. When they told the kids they could select a book, the sixth graders started pushing, shoving, and fighting over the hand-me-downs.
“Where we saw some something tattered, they saw a treasure,” she says. “Our students at South have their own Chromebooks and come to school in this state-of-the-art building every day, so it is important to remember those who aren’t as fortunate. It is our duty to serve them and to bring that kindness and positivity into their lives.”
In 2013, the two educators married and embarked on a career of making a difference in the lives of others through education. Marcus, who started as a teacher at East Salem Elementary is now the assistant principal at West Salem and Katie, who is in her ninth year at South, also serves as an instructional coach for her teaching peers. In addition, the couple has three young children.
“Her colleagues value what she says, follow her example and respect her as a leader,” says James. “Her fellow teachers look up to Katie and approach her to help problem solve, plan, and strategize. Katie realizes the importance of teamwork and collaboration to not only provide the best for her students, but also to support and share with other teachers in order to reach a greater number of children.
Crowder is aware that the aftershocks of COVID will be felt in the education profession for years to come, but she refuses to use the pandemic as an excuse.
“I feel like you still must look at the kids individually and meet them where they are,” she says. “They all come from different places and while we have had a rough couple of years, these are still the same kids who want to learn and be loved and inspired.”
“I have worked with thousands of students over the years as a teacher and as an administrator,” says Humphrey. “There is a spirit inside Katie that shines from her and attracts the people around her. Her students absolutely adore her, and her ability to reach each student at his or her level and make a significant connection is truly magical to watch.”
Crowder and Salem’s other five teachers of the year will be honored by the Salem Educational Foundation and Alumni Association at a school board reception on December 13.
“This honor is super humbling because the people I am teaching amongst were and still are my inspiration to do what I am doing,” she says. “I try to start every day on a positive note, and I know that a simple smile can go a long way.”
And that holds true in all classrooms – real or imagined.
SALEM’S OTHER 2023 TEACHERS OF YEAR AND THEIR RESPECTIVE SCHOOLS
7th Grade Mathematics
Andrew Lewis Middle
Preschool – Special Ed.
East Salem Elementary
G.W. Carver Elementary
Salem High School
West Salem Elementary