Top Teachers: Katie Schwieder

Fairfield M.S., sixth grade
On their 20th wedding anniversary, Katie Schwieder and her husband, Wylie, had an epiphany. She had spent her professional life as a banker and corporate trainer, he as a corporate executive. But with their four children finished or nearly finished with their public schooling, Schwieder said, “we decided it was time to give back.”

With that, they both quit their jobs to become teachers. Wylie Schwieder is in his third year teaching math at Henrico High School and Katie is in her second teaching English at Fairfield Middle School.

The transition wasn’t a difficult one for her.

“In a sense, I’ve been a teacher my whole life,” she said, recalling her days as a branch manager at a Wisconsin bank, then as a corporate trainer who assisted with team development, resolving conflict and customer service issues.

“Every day in the classroom, my customer is that child who’s in front of me, and his or her parents,” she said. “I always feel like I’m here to serve them. The product is education.”

Schwieder feels meant for sixth-graders – students caught in between the regimented schedule of elementary school and the flexibility of high school – as they work to define themselves in a sometimes chaotic blend of emotions.

“They’re independent but still children,” she said. “They’re trying to grow up but really not sure how. They’re concerned with having friends, but sometimes they just really need a hug.”

English is a natural fit for Schwieder, who grew up with a healthy appetite for reading and writing.

“I’m passionate about helping young people learn to communicate,” she said, “to express themselves both in writing and orally in a way that helps them be successful and engage with other people – especially in a world so technologically advanced now.”

To that end, Schwieder often builds her lessons around topics that the students themselves select.

One, for example, requires students to write about “My Most Unforgettable Day” – allowing them to recall their most prideful or special moments. Another asks them to address the topic “If I Could I Would” by writing about something they’d love to do.

Schwieder then encourages students to try the things they write about. Last summer, one student took piano lessons as a result. Another went to football camp. A third learned to make jewelry.

“Visiting her classroom, you feel the energy of inspiring lessons and students who want to be the best they can be for her,” one nominator wrote of Schwieder.

Schwieder’s in-class “book clubs” allow students to discuss books together, then create video commercials, skits or even re-write a book’s endings as a group.

By reading Three Cups of Tea – a book by Greg Mortenson about his efforts to establish schools for girls in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan – Fairfield sixth-graders have learned to relate to children their age half a world away.

“I’m trying to open up their minds to the world beyond the East End of Henrico,” she said. “I wrote in all my Christmas cards last year that I have found my calling. It’s been very rewarding.”
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