MT. PLEASANT — Fifth-grade teacher Samantha Freeman is all about building personal relationships with students — even if it means taking care of a 6-year-old lizard named Spike.
Her bearded dragon is just another way to connect with Harlan Elementary School students, said Freeman, who was recognized as an excellent educator last month by the Iowa State Education Association.
“Even if it’s through a class pet lizard — that some of the adults are freaked out by — it’s one more way to connect with kids,” the Mt. Pleasant Community School District teacher said.
Freeman, 30, was named the Iowa State Education Association’s 2019 Excellence in Education Award Runner-Up. She was celebrated at a July 22 banquet in West Des Moines. The ISEA is the state’s largest teachers’ union.
Harlan Principal Michael Gossen said Freeman is a teacher who “exuberates that passion for kids every day” and takes a special interest in considering her students’ backgrounds and home lives.
“Sam is among the best on how she interacts with students, even those that struggle with behavior,” he said. “She has gone out of her way to love those students, to nurture those students, to care for those students and to spend time with their families. She is always forward-thinking and innovative.”
Freeman said she works to make her classroom a safe and comfortable place.
“I treat it more as a family, and I really strive to say ‘ours,’ not ‘mine,’” she said. “It’s not a place where I run the show, it’s based on the kids. If they can have more say on what we do, things will run so much more smoothly.”
Freeman has taught at Harlan Elementary for four years, and additionally is an assistant high school girls track coach for Mt. Pleasant. Originally from Ft. Madison, she received a bachelor’s in education and a science endorsement from Simpson College in Indianola. She previously taught in Fairfield.
Married and a mom to three girls, Freeman said she loves being involved “in anything and everything” — she additionally is a coordinator for her school’s parent-teacher organization.
Her oldest daughter was in her class last school year, a position Freeman’s principal said is coveted by many students.
“Kids tell me they want to be in Mrs. Freeman’s class because she cares,” Gossen said. “Her students and her families know that she truly cares about the kids.”
Even Spike, who has a life expectancy of 20 years, joined Freeman’s classroom because of her desire to meet students’ needs. She said a former class’ feedback led her to adopt the reptile.
“She’s been around ever since,” Freeman said. “She’s probably going to retire with me.”
The winner of the 2019 Excellence in Education Award was Prairieview Middle School Spanish teacher Kerisa Baedke of Waukee. Carroll High School at-risk teacher Erin Comstock was the other runner-up.