Sunburst Elementary School fifth/sixth grade teacher, Shawn Christiaens, center, had a surprise visit from her daughter and grandson on her second to last day of teaching at Sunburst Elementary. “Shawn was a truly incredible teacher,” said Sunburst Elementary principal, Dan Nau. “Her high expectations push students to exceed beyond what they thought they were capable of. At the same time she also had an incredible rapport that made students want to work for her and achieve. She was always doing wonderful things for kids, staff and our community.”

If you had Shawn Christiaens as your teacher, consider yourself one of the lucky ones. After teaching for 37 years, with 32 of those in Sunburst, there have been many lucky students who had the opportunity to learn, grow and thrive under the caring and dedicated educator. She has decided it is time to retire at the end of the 2020-2021 school year.

Christiaens spent her first two years of teaching at Valier Public Schools and then the family moved to Kevin, where she took a job with Glacier Colony, which was a private school at the time. 

After two years there, Christiaens accepted a teaching position with Glendale Colony School, affiliated with Browning Public Schools, before taking the job in Sunburst.

“I wanted to be a part of the Sunburst School system as I knew our children would someday attend there,” said Christiaens. “I felt it would be a win-win for me to have the same schedule as them. I had also heard great things about the School District. At the time I applied there in 1989, 42 teachers had applied for two positions they had open!”

Sunburst made an excellent choice in hiring Christiaens and the decades spent teaching a variety of subjects K-8, but mainly Language Arts, is a decision Christiaens has never regretted. 

Her inspiration to be a teacher came at a young age, as her grammar school teachers were great examples to look up to and aspire to be like. Having her mother work in the school also played a part in her decision.

“My mom was an aide at the school, too, and it was so fun to see her every day,” recalled Christiaens. “I always thought what a wonderful career for a mom. Over the years, I have had numerous people inspire me and be my biggest cheerleaders. The list includes my late husband, who always supported my career, my children, my colleagues and administrators.”

Many things have changed in over three decades of teaching, with technology, of course, being the biggest. When Christiaens first started her career in the early 1980s most teachers didn’t have their own computer, now, everyone does. As technology has taken over and created endless opportunities it has also hindered a basic need, that of face-to-face communication, something Christiaens feels the students still need and benefit from.

“This is one of the biggest cons I see with technology,” she said. “Widening our knowledge base, students and educators, helping teachers with resources, instant data on progress and being able to have a student’s grades at your fingertips are all pros to how technology has changed our learning climate. I know that some people think students have changed, but at the end of the day and after 37 years of teaching, students still need boundaries, need to be recognized and have a sense of belonging. We really need to take time to listen to them. They want to be heard. They haven’t changed. The world has.” 

The world continues to throw change at us and one of the biggest change challenges Christiaens ever faced as a teacher was COVID-19. Other changes happened over time and were adapted to, but the pandemic was one that no one was prepared for.

“We had one day to get materials and set up online class from our homes,” said Christiaens. What a challenge,” recalls Christiaens. “Not being prepared for something of this magnitude, it caught teachers, students and parents off guard. We did prevail, however, with a very organized and accommodating administration. They kept our heads above water.” 

Whatever the challenge, Christiaens has welcomed and tackled them head on. Each day and each student comes with various challenges and Christiaens strives to find ways to overcome whatever the obstacle may be. Overcoming the challenges, making connections with her students and seeing them learn has been one of the best and most rewarding part of her job.

“It is difficult for me to pinpoint one thing I have enjoyed the most as a teacher,” said Christiaens. “I think the challenge of how to reach the students and plan lessons that will grab their attention and witness them grasping the new concepts has been the most rewarding for me. A day in the classroom is never the same. Each day brings new and exciting things. It most certainly isn’t a boring job!”

Never boring, and after spending the past 32 years in the same classroom it has become a second home, one that she will truly miss once the final bell rings at the end of this school year. 

“That sense of belonging to something, being a part of...will be an adjustment,” said Christiaens. “I will miss teaching writing. Seeing the writing students find their ‘voice’ in their writing makes it all worth the lessons and one-on-one help. After working with them for two years, it is enlightening to go back and read their writing portfolios and see the improvement.”

While she will miss teaching and the people that came with it, she is also very much looking forward to what her next life chapter holds, that of spending more time with her family, especially her three-year-old grandson, and reading. She also plans on continuing to sell real estate, so staying busy definitely won’t be a problem! 

As her teaching career winds down and she prepares to start on a new journey Christiaens shared a bit of wisdom for new teachers.

“Each day remember... Make today so great that yesterday gets jealous!   Enjoy each day! One day you blink and it’s time to retire.”

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