By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Some students are still uncertain about their future plans when they get to college.
They need time to explore all the options before choosing a career that fits their strengths and interests.
Not Sydney Atkinson. She decided long ago that she wanted to be a teacher.
“I’ve been surrounded by amazing educators my entire life and seen the impact they make on people,” Atkinson said. “In high school, my teachers challenged me to become a better student inside and outside the classroom, and I want to have that same type of impact on students’ lives. I want to help students find their own passions and follow their own dreams. Really, my goal as a teacher is just to help students find their own success.”
A native of Butte, a small town in north-central Nebraska about three hours from Kearney, Atkinson is continuing what’s become a family tradition.
Her mother Heidi is a special education teacher at Boyd County Public Schools and her brother Mitchell is a third grade teacher and girls basketball coach at Johnson-Brock. They both attended the University of Nebraska at Kearney, where Atkinson and her younger sister Heather are currently enrolled. Atkinson graduates summa cum laude on Friday with a bachelor’s degree in business, marketing and information technology education and Heather is a junior studying elementary and special education.
They weren’t dead set on following each other’s footsteps, Atkinson said. “I just think it made the most sense to us.”
“Coming from such a small town, a bigger university would have kind of been a culture shock,” she said. “I wanted that small-town feel with the university experience, and I think UNK is just that. They really make you feel at home. The class sizes are small enough that I got to know all of my professors really well and I feel like I had personal relationships with them and was able to connect with them.”
Atkinson received a full-tuition Board of Regents Scholarship, along with additional financial support from the UNK College of Business and Technology, Nebraska State Business Education Association and National Business Education Association. Those scholarships covered nearly all of her college expenses.
The decision to attend UNK opened a lot of doors for Atkinson, who was active in numerous campus organizations and programs. She was part of the Honors Program, Secondary Educators Club, Kappa Delta Pi honor society and the collegiate level of Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA). Atkinson earned a number of honors during her time at UNK, including the FBLA future business educator award at both the state and national leadership conferences.
These awards speak volumes about Atkinson’s ability as a student and future business teacher, according to Alyse Pflanz, her adviser and coordinator of UNK’s business teacher education program. Pflanz called Atkinson a creative, outside-the-box thinker who brings passionate energy to the classroom at a time when education needs it most.
“Sydney has impressed me since the first day she walked into my office,” Pflanz said. “She is someone others enjoy being around, she’s extremely intelligent, and she isn’t afraid to do what it takes to elevate herself and those around her. I am grateful to get to work with someone like her for the rest of our careers as they cross paths at professional development opportunities and conferences.”
The two have already collaborated outside the classroom. Pflanz serves as director of the Center for Economic Education at UNK, a resource that promotes economic and financial literacy in the state, and Atkinson helped deliver this programming. Most recently, they led a Family Financial Fun Night at Kearney Children’s Museum for elementary students and their parents.
“Alyse Pflanz does an absolutely amazing job of running the business education program at UNK,” Atkinson said. “I love her and will be speaking to her for the rest of my life, because she has really become a mentor for me and someone I look up to a lot.”
READY TO TEACH
Atkinson credits the “great professors” she had at UNK for teaching her the content side of business education, but there’s another equally important part of the job.
She learned about classroom management and student assessment at Axtell Community School, where she was mentored by business teacher Tara Smith. Atkinson worked alongside Smith for two semesters, first during her field experience, then as a student teacher in complete control of the classroom.
“It was a learning experience, for sure,” she said. “I think I learned the most about classroom management, because that’s not something you can teach as well in a college classroom. That’s been the biggest learning curve for me, but it’s been very beneficial and I’ve grown a lot as an educator over the last semester.”
Atkinson taught high school entrepreneurship, accounting, digital design, personal finance and information technology classes during the fall semester, using the free rein Smith gave her to fine-tune her skills.
“I’m very excited to be able to create my own content and kind of do things my own way, even though I feel like I’ve had that freedom here, too,” she said.
Smith has no doubt that she’s ready to take the next step.
“She’ll make a great teacher,” Smith said. “There are people who go into education and they don’t become teachers. She’s going to be a teacher. You can just tell. She has those qualities.”
Atkinson plans to substitute teach during the spring while pursuing a full-time position at a Nebraska school. She called this week’s commencement ceremony a “big moment” in her life.
“I’m accomplishing what I set out to do and continuing my passion of teaching,” Atkinson said. “Graduation will really solidify that feeling.”