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OSU-Tulsa elementary education students graduate to Teacher of the Year accolades

Published: Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Former OSU-Tulsa classmates and teachers Ali Ryder, left, Sarah Coonce and Andrea Sanders were all recognized as the Teacher of the Year at their respective schools not long after graduating from college.

Three Tulsa-area teachers are convinced OSU-Tulsa’s undergraduate elementary education program has some kind of “special sauce.”

Not long after graduating, each of the former college classmates was named Teacher of the Year at her respective school.

“OSU-Tulsa’s special sauce is being yourself. They taught us to love kids first, teach second and worry about the test last,” says Sarah Coonce, who teaches at Garfield STEAM Academy in Sand Springs. She was Teacher of the Year at her previous school in 2015.

She and her fellow classmates were urged not to limit themselves to the school’s curriculum but to draw from other resources and inspiration in designing lesson plans tailored to the learning needs of each child.

Sarah Coonce“Our professors were real with us so we learned to be real with our kids,” Coonce says.

Coonce, Ali Ryder and Andrea Sanders are enthusiastic about their teaching careers and credit much of their know-how to their professors and the program’s sharp focus on individualized learning.

“We were taught every child does not learn the same, so why would we teach in one style, the same way every day?” says Ryder, who teaches first grade at Herald Elementary School in Collinsville. She was named Teacher of the Year in 2017.

After learning some other OSU-Tulsa classmates had also been selected as their school’s Teacher of the Year, she knew their university experience was the reason.

Professors lead with passion

OSU faculty have an innate ability to light a spark and passion about teaching in their students, Ryder says.

“Our professors ignited within us the desire to make learning engaging, deep and meaningful to each and every one of our students,” she says. “We had purposeful discussions during almost every class.”

While pursuing their degrees, the teachers engaged in real-world experiences through internships at a variety of schools and grade levels. They brought their questions, stories and ideas back to their OSU-Tulsa classrooms for discussion and guidance.Andrea Sanders

“We didn’t just get through our classes and then get thrown into careers,” Ryder says. “We were prepared.”

Sanders says the faculty inspired her so much during her pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in elementary education that she continued on to complete a master’s degree in teaching, learning and leadership with an option in reading and literacy in 2017.

Now a teacher at Tulsa Public Schools’ Disney Elementary, she was named Teacher of the Year the same year she received her master’s degree.

“When your professors care and it shows, how can you not care?” she says. “Every single one of them pushed me beyond the limits I set for myself. They helped me see a person I didn’t know existed, and because of that, I’m truly thankful and grateful for them.”

Turning points

The trio was drawn to the profession at different times in their lives.

Ryder began college right out of high school, and since age 7, her goal was to become a teacher. Coonce and Sanders took different career paths before deciding to get their elementary education degrees.

Sanders was a single mom working full-time filing medical claims in the insurance business. She realized her passion for teaching as a volunteer with Junior Achievement, a global nonprofit group fostering entrepreneurship and financial literacy among children from kindergarten to 12th grade.

After a visit with a third-grade class for the organization, the school’s principal told Sanders she should be teaching. “She told me I had natural talent and the district could use more people like me,” she says.

Coonce had a family and planned to pursue a career as a sign language interpreter. Like Sanders, a visit to an elementary school to teach a deaf education class pulled her in.

Ali Ryder“Teaching chose me. I definitely didn’t choose it,” she says. “I absolutely loved interacting with the kids and getting to know them.”

Learn where you live

OSU-Tulsa was a natural choice for all three teachers. Each was able to stay in the Tulsa area and work during the day while attending classes in the evenings. They earned the same OSU degree as elementary education students do in Stillwater.

Because of the university’s reputation for producing quality teachers, OSU elementary education graduates are highly sought after by school districts in Oklahoma and other states.

“OSU-Tulsa works hard to be accessible for career changers – many of whom have families – as well as serving more traditional undergraduate students,” said Dr. Robin Fuxa, director of OSU’s Professional Education Unit and one of the classmates’ favorite professors. “These women collectively embody the results of long-standing efforts on our Tulsa campus to serve those in the community.”

OSU-Tulsa’s elementary education graduates typically stay and teach in the Tulsa area, providing much-needed relief for schools facing critical teaching shortages.

“All three of these women are brilliant, committed professional educators who care deeply about their students,” Fuxa says. “These teachers make a positive difference for their students and communities every single day and I couldn’t be more proud.”


Media Contact: Aaron Campbell | 918-594-8046 |