Sydney Termini, a first-grade teacher at Columbia Gorge Elementary School (CRGE), generally prefers to labor in semi-obscurity, but on Sept. 14, everyone who watched the University of Washington (UW) football team’s game against the University of Hawaii at Husky Stadium in Seattle found out just how good Termini is at her job.
During the contest, Termini was honored as part of the College Football Playoff Foundation’s Extra Yard for Teachers Week, a nationwide program that recognizes teaching excellence.
At halftime, Termini and four other science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) educators from Washington elementary schools walked to the middle of the playing field, were introduced to the thousands of people in attendance and a broadcast television audience, and received a $2,000 check for classroom use.
“It was kind of a blur. Terrifying, actually,” Termini said of the event. “We were on and off the field before we knew it. My legs were shaking, and I had a perma-grin on my face. It was something I don’t think I’ll forget. I took my son, Ben, with me down on the sidelines, and it was a big moment for him, too. It was a fun atmosphere.”
Educational Services District (ESD) 112 STEM director Vickei Hrdina nominated Termini for the award, but didn’t tell the teacher about the possible honor until a few days before the UW game. “It took me by surprise for sure. I was caught a little off guard,” Termini said. “But I was also really excited. Once I learned that I was one of five, I was taken aback. I felt honored and overwhelmed. (CRGE) had an assembly on the day before the game, and I had tears in my eyes.”
During the assembly, CRGE Principal Tracey MacLachlan presented Termini and her son, Ben, a fourth-grader, with UW shirts to wear to the game.
“She’s an amazing teacher,” MacLachlan said of Termini. “She’s a hard worker, open-minded, wants to get students involved in learning activities, is willing to write grants and takes a proactive approach to cutting-edge technology education. When we found out she won, we weren’t surprised.”
Termini is “a rock star,” according to Pranjali Upadhyay, an integrated curriculum specialist for ESD 112.
“We’re incredibly proud of her,” Upadhyay said. “I don’t think a teacher like Sydney is all that common. We weren’t super surprised when she was selected, but we’re really happy for her. We see Sydney as a science leader in this region. She’s amazing. She’s a role model for all of us.”
Termini is a role model for CRGE staff members as well, according to MacLachlan.
“She’s one of those people who’s never at the forefront of things, but she always does her best and does it quietly,” she said. “She’s humble, and she doesn’t draw a lot of attention to herself, but my staff sees her as a leader. I think the (Washougal School District) sees her as a leader as well.”
MacLachlan said Termini’s ability to think outside the box and dedication to continued professional development sets her apart from her peers.
“Whether she’s dealing with coding club or girls in STEM or robotics or whatever else, she knows how to make the most of her chances,” MacLachlan said of Termini. “She’s one of those people who’s always looking for opportunities and finds them because she’s looking. She keeps abreast of what’s going on in her field. It’s her passion.”
In 2017, Termini participated in ESD 112’s “nPower Girls” program, which provided opportunities for STEM teachers to learn from local women about the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in their industries.
“In our society, young boys are given opportunities to build things, but girls aren’t exposed to tinkering-type activities as early as boys are,” Upadhyay said. “So when they get to the classroom and are introduced to an engineering task, boys tend to dominate and girls take on a more passive role.”
Termini is working fervently to reverse those gender-gap trends with her students.
“(I want to create an environment) where girls don’t feel outnumbered,” Termini said.
Upadyhay was impressed with what she saw when she visited Termini’s classroom last year.
“Her girls were phenomenal,” Upadyhay said of Termini’s students. “They were able to stand in front of the classroom confidently and show a real sense of ownership of their work. Sydney is great at creating reasons for students to want to learn about science and making girls feel like they can make a difference and an impact on the world.”
Termini also worked with Upadhyay to create “storylines” that were implemented as part of the district’s science curriculum.
For example, second-graders learn about earth and space sciences, weather and climate through the storyline: “How can we design a solution to prevent Washington’s coast from eroding?” And middle-schoolers learn about interdependent relationships in ecosystems and life sciences through the storyline: “What can we do in our community to preserve honey bee populations?”
“We looked at the science kits and the standards that needed to be met at each gradeline and created stories to help students meet those standards at a better rate than they had been,” Termini explained. “We brainstormed ways to make (the experiments) fun and interesting. It was a fun experience.”
Upadhyay said Termini “uses STEM to empower students to succeed in other areas as well.”
“Instead of teaching science in isolation, she uses science and math and language arts together,” Upadhyay said. “That’s the ideal way to look at science instruction, which shouldn’t be siloed or insulated. She’s using science as a way of teaching reading, writing and speaking.”
Termini, who serves as the adviser for CRGE’s after-school coding club, said she is able to make STEM activities stimulating, immersive and approachable for her students by employing a project-based learning style.
“As much as we can, we want kids to have a hands-on approach and be able to work through problems in different ways to find solutions,” Termini said. “I just love that (STEM activities) give kids a creative outlet.They’re able to express themselves authentically and really get engaged with the things that they’re creating because they’re (implementing) their own ideas.”
For Termini, the best moment comes when she recognizes that one of her students has figured out a problem after struggling to understand.
“It’s really fun to see their breakthroughs, or when they learn from each other,” Termini said of her students. “That’s really powerful to me.”