Sandra Coyer originally wanted to be a journalist but found her calling was in the classroom.

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Like many other educators, Sandra Coyer didn’t start off wanting to be a teacher.

Coyer, who is just finishing her 16th year in the classroom and her 14th year at Puyallup High School, studied journalism at Washington State University. Her passion for storytelling emerged early, and a sixth-grade teacher suggested journalism as a profession.

But right before she was set to graduate, Coyer realized something didn’t feel quite right about her future plans. She stayed at WSU for an additional year to complete her teaching credential.

“I haven’t looked back yet,” she said.

Coyer teaches Advanced Placement English and journalism and also advises her school’s newspaper staff. The overlap between teaching and journalism is natural for Coyer, who is on a mission to help students use language to share their own stories and find their voices.

Coyer was nominated for this series by Jenny Canter, a former student who is now a teacher herself.

“I have never met a more caring or compassionate teacher who truly gives of herself freely and totally,” Canter said. “I can truly see that teaching is a ministry, a calling for her, and one that she won’t give any less than her best. She is an example of a teacher whom I hope to be like someday.”

What follows is a condensed version of our conversation on the theme “Why I Teach,” an occasional series from Education Lab. Some responses have been edited for clarity and length.

What’s the best part about being a teacher?

The most rewarding part of every day is having the kids be with me in the moment, and not being absorbed by their phones or the social things that happen. They’re learning because they want to learn, not because there are points associated with it but because they’re curious and they’re engaged. When I see their smiles, and I know that they’re at least trying to get what it is that I’m telling them, that’s the most rewarding.

What do you do when students are struggling or aren’t as engaged as you’d like them to be?

I try to keep as much of a gauge on them as possible, in terms of getting to know them and establishing those relationships with them pretty early on. For example, I had a student at the very beginning of the year, I didn’t know her very well, but I could tell something was wrong. I just took a post-it note out and I said, “Hey,  I can tell that there’s something up. Whatever it is, just know that I’m thinking about you and I’m sending you positive vibes. And everything’s going to be OK.”

I took the post-it and I stuck it on her desk and she said the fact that I had even noticed and had taken the time to give her a boost of encouragement — that meant a lot.

What I try to do with our newspaper staff is give kids a place where they fit in and they belong. For my staff, for a lot of them, it’s the only group that they’re associated with that connects them to the high school. I run my staff like a family. It’s almost cultish in some cases, but we celebrate each other and we celebrate our successes.

They’re kids who normally wouldn’t talk to one another, and yet they share this opportunity and these experiences. It’s really cool to watch them interact in that type of an environment, and coach each other through the things they need to do, and hold each other accountable — just like you would in a family.

Puyallup High School teacher Sandra Coyer directs student newspaper staff in the planning process for the next school year. (Caitlin Moran / The Seattle Times)
Puyallup High School teacher Sandra Coyer directs student newspaper staff in the planning process for the next school year. (Caitlin Moran / The Seattle Times)

What’s the most challenging part about teaching today?

Time is always going to be a challenge. You have 10 months. I tell my students, “My job is to make you better when you leave this room than when you just walked in. And I have 180 days of school to do that.” Classes here aren’t even an hour. They’re 45 or 50 minutes, sometimes 55 minutes if you’re lucky. That’s not even an hour a day. Less than 180 hours to make you better in some way, shape or form.

If you could go back to your first day of teaching, what would you tell yourself?

The number one thing would be, “It’s OK not to take yourself too seriously.” I plan everything out well in advance, which is very much how I was when I first started teaching, but I’ve grown to embrace teachable moments and let them guide where we go on a daily basis. I would tell myself to not be afraid of those moments.

Do you ever think about doing something else?

Fleetingly. I can’t even imagine what would make me as happy and give me as much joy as teaching.

What’s your advice for new teachers?

Don’t lose hope. It is going to be difficult; it is going to be hard. I remember moments of my first year where I would spend my planning period crying at my desk. I would turn all the blinds down, and I would just bawl, just to let it all out and have that cathartic moment.

But it’s going to be one of the wildest rides that you’ll ever be able to go on. There are people out there who are going to support you and who want the best for you and want you to be in this profession.

Who else should we feature in our series? Send your nominations to Caitlin Moran: cmoran@seattletimes.com