LSS Teacher Wins Top Prize

Silke Hansen couldn’t believe her ears when her name was called.

“I was completely surprised – and speechless, which doesn’t happen too often,” she said, laughing.

The 24-year veteran teacher was awarded the South Dakota Distinguished Adult Educator of the Year earlier this month by the South Dakota Association for Lifelong Learning during the organization’s summer conference in Sioux Falls.

silke photo

“I was very happy, of course; I also felt honored and humbled,” she said.

Silke, a native of Germany, has taught for 11 years at the Center for New Americans, including classes in English, job-interviews, and citizenship.

Laura Smith-Hill, the director of the education program at the Center for New Americans, said Silke was nominated for the award by her colleagues. “Her nomination then went to a panel of adult education colleagues statewide who selected her from a competitive cohort to receive this great honor,” Laura said.

LSS teachers Beth Sandager and Susan Torres, along with Laura, nominated Silke for the award. In the nomination letter, they wrote: “Silke Hansen exemplifies the qualities of an outstanding adult educator. … She selflessly goes above and beyond to do what needs to be done to get students enrolled in classes, answer staff and student questions and support the daily details of a program seeing more than 200 students a day. She greets new residents with warmth and compassion. She continually seeks to understand the different cultures and backgrounds of our learners. Silke is giving, professionally collaborative and supportive to everyone around her.”

I took some time this week to interview Silke.  You will find her kind and caring answers below:

What do you like most about your job?

The people! Coming to work is like stepping into a mini United Nations every single day. I love learning more about other countries, cultures and languages and my students are the best teachers. Most of them have arrived here in Sioux Falls running for their lives with nothing but the clothes on their back – but they are always willing to share the little they have. They open their homes and their hearts – we laugh together and we cry together. I can never just run to the store and quickly grab some milk – too many people know me even if I don’t know all of them.  But I can’t forget to talk about the other group of people: my supervisor, my co-teachers and all my co-workers at CNA. We are a great team, we support each other through our daily ups and downs, with the same goal in mind – giving our students/clients the best start into their new lives.

Can you tell a story about a particularly meaningful or inspirational encounter you have had with a student?

Yes, I want to share about an older gentleman from East Africa. Shortly after his arrival in Sioux Falls he was rushed to the hospital where he was diagnosed with diabetes; he almost died that day, his blood sugar was off the charts. But he got well and became my student.  As most of our clients, he has been through incredible heartbreak in his life. He is by far the most level-headed, grateful, helpful and humble individual I have ever had in my classroom. He speaks most of the major languages of Africa and he is like a walking history book. He is always willing to share his knowledge – and always in a neutral and respectful way. I have never heard him raise his voice. Yet he is not afraid to tell other students and/or clients if they ‘need an attitude adjustment.’ He has had some health issues recently but he tells me he will be back in August. I can’t wait!  

What is your educational background?

I have an MA in English from the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. I have always been interested in international populations, going as far back as when I was in grade school in Germany. At USD I volunteered in the International Students Office, and here in Sioux Falls I am also involved with our ethnic populations.

Where were you born?

Frankfurt, Germany

When did you come to the U.S. to live?

 After high school

How does being an immigrant to the U.S. yourself help you in your job and in your dealings with your students?

Hearing their stories of why and how they came to Sioux Falls makes me realize how fortunate I was that I came to the US because I wanted to – I had an education, I spoke English, I was able to bring my belongings, I can go home whenever I want to, my family is only a phone call away. Most of our clients didn’t and still don’t have these privileges. It’s also a good reality check. Like everybody, I have days when I think a lot about my problems and issues. But then, looking at my students and reminding myself of their hardships, my own problems all of a sudden pale in comparison. 

What part of your job do you find the most rewarding, even though it may be difficult?

Seeing my students’ reactions. The old man who practiced diligently for many months writing the letters – and he finally managed to write it correctly. His face was just beaming! The woman who spent decades wandering around the African bush received a notebook and a pencil on her first day in my class. She clapped her hands and jumped up and down for joy! The young mother who couldn’t say ‘thank you’ enough that she finally has the chance to go to school. The difficult part sometimes is looking at my students, hearing them say ‘thank you, teacher’ over and over – thanking us for giving them a chance to learn, thanking us for giving them an education – something that most of us in the Western world take for granted every day.

Here at LSS, we couldn’t be more proud of our colleague!  Congratulations Silke!

Posted by Julie Boutwell-Peterson


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