Sara Hacken, Utah Teacher of the Year, reflects with The Universe

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Teaching was the last thing on 9-year-old Sara Hacken’s mind.

After her father passed away when she was just nine years old, Hacken spent the rest of her upbringing moving from house to house, and was all-too-familiar with the feeling of being the new kid in town.

“Teaching was never on my radar,” Hacken said. “Never. As a teenager, we just moved a lot and I really didn’t see myself doing anything in particular. There was a time where we moved 10 times in nine years. I spent my time just trying to kind of grow up.”

Utah Teacher of the Year Sara Hacken poses for a photo with President Barack Obama. Hacken met President Obama along with accomplished educators from all 50 states as part of her award. (Photo  courtesy Sara Hacken)
Utah Teacher of the Year Sara Hacken poses for a photo with President Barack Obama, whom she met in Washington D.C. as part of her award. (Photo courtesy Sara Hacken)

Today, after teaching throughout Utah for nearly 30 years and receiving one of the most prestigious awards available to educators, Hacken has reached one of the pinnacles of her profession.

Hacken, an English and history teacher at Lakeridge Jr. High in Orem, was named the 2013 Utah Teacher of the Year — and almost didn’t attend the banquet where the winner was announced because she felt she didn’t have a shot.

“I felt like I had totally blown the interview (when they interviewed the finalists for the state of Utah) by rambling on and saying nothing meaningful,” Hacken said. “When they announced the runners up, I thought their essays were great and that there was no way I would win anything. Then they started reading part of my essay and announced my name, and I was shocked. I was deeply humbled and so surprised on every level.”

As part of her award, Hacken traveled all over the country to attend seminars and trainings with winners from other states. Hacken, a self-proclaimed lover of travel and adventure, enjoyed opportunities to work with national leaders, including President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden in Washington, D.C.

Additionally, Hacken has traveled abroad with training groups, and as an exchange teacher to countries including Russia, Japan, India and Austria — in addition to visiting colonial sites countless times to better understand and teach American history.

Hacken is likely best known throughout Utah’s education system for establishing the Gifted and Talented Services program in the Alpine School District. When her family moved to Utah in 1981, she found that her children were not being challenged enough in their academic environment.

“They had good teachers, but these teachers didn’t quite know what to do with my kids,” Hacken said. “There was nothing here for them. Everyone said they would be fine, but the schools had no gifted program and no real special classes offered.”

Hacken took matters into her own hands by returning to school and completing a master’s degree in administration, while also picking up a gifted and talented endorsement, an educational teaching credential, and completing an internship with the Alpine School District. After a short amount of time, Hacken had established a curriculum for high-achieving students.

“The biggest payoff for me is to know I’ve made a difference in lives,” Hacken said. “All children deserve an appropriate public education and a shot to succeed.”

Hacken may be recognized for her more high-profile achievements, but her greatest love lies in the simplicity of teaching and bringing learning to life. As a teacher of integrated English and history, Hacken seizes any opportunity to weave stories and activities together.

Hacken’s classroom is known as a place where historic people are seen as actual individuals, and she loves teaching through scenarios and hands-on learning. She also regularly drafts proposals for teaching grants, and has earned $2.5 million for her school district to train teachers and promote an active learning environment.

“The point is to make people think,” Hacken said. “And when it comes to disseminating my philosophy to other teachers, I have been really lucky.”

Hacken describes herself as a risk-taker who loves to try new things — but she also delights in reading, quilting, gardening and walking around (and other “boring stuff like that”). Hacken also regularly participates in historical reenactments, and she is the proud owner of Jamestown period costumes and three suits of armor.

Above all other interests, however, teaching remains at the center of her heart.

“The rewarding thing is when you’ve made a difference and when you’ve helped a child,” Hacken said. “The bottom line is to care. I love my students. I would walk to the moon for these kids. I want to help them in whatever way I can, not just have them learn stuff. I want them to become better people, more compassionate people, and kinder people.”

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