Teachers, quite literally, change lives every day in their classrooms. They improve outcomes for students, identify children at risk and lift up the mental, physical and emotional capacities of entire communities. That’s a whole lot of work.

In a small office, tucked away behind the principal’s office at Sweetwater Elementary School in Devils Lake, Sara Thompson performs her own miracles. Her job is to lift up the lifters. She is an instructional coach for teachers in her school. And she is good at her job.

So good, she was recognized as a finalist for the 2020 North Dakota Teacher of the Year award.

“She’s a mentor, but she’s also like a mother,” said Dr. Deb Follman, Sweetwater principal. “She wants them to do well, but she wants only the best for them. She wants them to shine all the time, and she’s got that experience so she can help them.”

Thompson grew up in Devils Lake. She said she was led into her path toward becoming an educator by the maternal figures in her life. “My mom was a teacher at the community college here in town, and my grandma was a teacher at a one-room schoolhouse,” Thompson said. “They were major influencers and showed me just what a wonderful job it is.”

She began her career in education by student teaching in Arlington, Texas. She then taught one year in Wichita, Kan., before moving back to Arlington to be a second-grade teacher.

She made it her goal to become a specialist, though, and found that niche in Reading Recovery at a job fair. “I was lucky enough to get paired up with a really good principal and the Reading Recovery lead teacher for the district. We had a really good conversation, and I jokingly said, ‘Well, if you have any openings in reading recovery, I’d love to look into that.’ I was hired a couple of weeks later.”

Twelve years ago, she and her husband moved back home to Devils Lake, and she began her current job as reading specialist and instructional coach at Sweetwater Elementary.

She travels from classroom to classroom, mentoring educators such as second-grade teacher Andrea Pesek, who is in her first year of teaching. “There’s never a dumb question with Sara,” Pesek said. “I started here, and I didn’t even know her. And the moment I met her, I thought, oh, this is going to be someone that I look up to. This is going to be someone that is going to help me out.”