Teacher Spotlight: Sandra Van Dyke
Throughout the summer, we shine a spotlight on the expert teachers at MEK Review. All of our instructors are experts in their field with years of experience and content knowledge. And we are honored to share their insights with you!
This week, we spotlight Sandra Van Dyke.
Mrs. Van Dyke is an English teacher and tutor at MEK, who teaches Non-Fiction Reading for Grades 6 and 7, having previously taught for 37 years in the public school system.
The following is an interview between her and our content writer, where she shares her advice for students taking challenging admissions tests, what she loves about teaching, and her experience working in the world of theater:
Teaching at MEK
Interviewer: What is your favorite part of teaching at MEK?
Van Dyke: Teaching at MEK is a new challenge for me. I’ve tutored younger students before, but I’ve never had a full class like the ones I have now. We had our first session last Friday, and I absolutely loved it.
First of all, I get to teach students how to analyze non-fiction, which is something I didn’t focus on during my teaching career as I taught more fiction-centered courses. And secondly, the younger students are so eager to learn. I was a high school English teacher for almost 40 years, and I can see that these middle school students don’t have the same inhibitions and self-consciousness as high school students when it comes to public speaking. I get to be a guide to these students.
Interviewer: Wow. Almost 40 years! That’s incredible! What inspired you to become a teacher?
Van Dyke: Teaching was actually my second career. Before that, I was working as an executive assistant for the faculty union of a university. At the time my children were young, and I was very dissatisfied with the education they were receiving. My husband suggested that I become a teacher, and that inspired me to go back to school to get my teaching certification, where I majored in Speech and Theater Education.
Interviewer: Where did you teach?
Van Dyke: I taught for 16 years at Manalapan H.S., 15 years at West Orange High School, and in between I had a few other gigs, including Fairleigh Dickinson University. When I retired, I taught 7th grade English for two years, and another two years teaching AP Literature and 9th grade honors at a private school. Along the way, I also worked for a company where I tutored child performers on location.
I have to tell you, I really loved teaching and was always excited to go to school, finding something to enjoy each day. I think the theater was a significant part of that. I’ve directed more than 100 plays and musicals in high school, community and regional theatres, as well as teaching Drama. It meant very long hours, but it was incredibly rewarding.
Keeping Students Engaged
Interviewer: What’s your key to student engagement in the classroom?
Van Dyke: I truly believe that students respond to logic. If a concept or activity seems logical, students will accept it. It has to make sense and be pertinent to them in some way so they can see the point.
In the argument-based NFR 6 & 7 classes, I tell them that when breaking down the facts of an article, pinpointing what the author is trying to convince you of will give you the main idea. And listing how that main point is being proven will reveal the details. Truly understanding the articles then frees us to work on their public speaking skills where they learn to get past personal prejudices and keep an open mind. But no matter what I’m teaching, I try to find ways to apply what they’re learning to their own lives, or the students won’t buy in.
Building Confidence in Reading, Writing, and Presenting
Interviewer: How do you build students’ confidence in reading, writing, and presentation skills?
Van Dyke: I think first you have to find what appeals to students. Then they’ll accept and learn it, which will give them the confidence to proceed. If you can’t meet them at their level and make a concept important to them, they’re not going to. You have to make something compelling in order to build their confidence. You draw confidence out of them.
For example, some students like to speak and some students don’t. So you encourage the students who like to speak, and then guide the more quiet students to watch and learn. Over time, they will see this as something fun.
In public speaking, students need to work on skills like eye contact and concentration. I played a fun, little game with my students. And after the game, I asked them what skills they learned. They were able to tell me which skills were the focus of the game, like eye contact, memorizing, and volume.
Interviewer: Confidence is also key for succeeding on tough admissions exams. Do you have any advice for students taking the SAT, ACT, or AP exams?
Van Dyke: Tests like the SAT, ACT, and AP exam are all about concentration and focus. These tests are about having the maturity to sit for lengths of time in order to reveal all that you’ve learned, which is not easy for younger people. What you’re proving to the colleges and admissions officers is that you are ready to sit down with challenging material. It’s a test of determination, as much as wisdom.
Interviewer: Speaking of college, where did you go to college?
Van Dyke: For my undergraduate degrees, I attended Brooklyn College, where I majored in Sociology, and The College of New Jersey, where I majored in Speech and Theater Education, as well as English. For my advanced degree, I majored in a research-based Theatre and Broadcasting program at Montclair University.
A Life in Theater
Interviewer: What do you like to do outside of MEK?
Van Dyke: I’m on the board of the Speech and Theater Association of New Jersey, and was also the NJ State Director of the International Thespian Society, an organization strictly for high school thespians. We did a lot of fun things, including competitions and attending plays and musicals in NYC. By the time they graduated high school, my students must have easily seen 10-15 plays and musicals, as well as winning the opportunity to perform at the Edinburg Fringe Festival in Scotland. Some ultimately became lawyers, doctors and salespeople – all requiring acting skills – and a few have appeared in or starred in Broadway musicals, like Hamilton and The Lion King, as well as TV shows like Law and Order. You can see and hear one of my former students, Kristie Keleshian, almost every day as she reports news stories for CBS TV and radio!
Then once I “retired,” in addition to still directing, I always looked for challenges and things that I have never done before.
Interviewer: What were some of the most memorable plays you’ve directed?
Van Dyke: I’ve always been drawn to plays and musicals that present a challenge, such as The Lion King, the last play I directed in the public school system. I also directed Sweeney Todd, Miss Saigon, and dramas like The Crucible and Inherit the Wind. My favorite musical I’ve directed is Evita. I love finding ways to get excellence out of whomever I am teaching and working with. And there’s always excellence!
Interviewer: What’s your favorite play to watch?
Van Dyke: Les Miserables is my favorite “modern” play. But my favorite “traditional” play is South Pacific. It’s a story about acceptance and tolerance, and speaks to issues of race, gender, and age.
I came to the U.S. from Germany when I was three. Initially, acceptance was a real challenge because the children I was playing with were five, but not all accepted me because I didn’t speak English. So, acceptance and tolerance are very important to me.
Interviewer: And, of course, as an English teacher, I have to ask, what are you currently reading?
Van Dyke: I just finished Trespasses by Louise Kennedy. I also just finished Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir and recently read Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, which I had never gotten to read in school. I also enjoyed Lessons In Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus.