Above and beyond the classroom

First-grade Westlake Elementary School teacher honored as MSD of Wayne Township’s 2023 Elementary Teacher of the Year


At the end of every school day, Desiree Tyson hugs her first-grade students and tells them, “I love you.”

“Encouraging words like, ‘Honey, I believe in you. I know it’s hard. I believe you can do this,’ slowly build their trust,” Tyson said. “If an especially struggling student doesn’t trust you or feel safe, then they’re not going to take the risks that are necessary in order to grow.

“I try to create a classroom environment they can feel successful in. Then, if they make a mistake, [they can say,] ‘It’s not the end of the world. It’s okay. That didn’t work. What can we do next?’”

For 16 years, Tyson has fostered a safe and loving learning environment in her classroom at Westlake Elementary School. On April 25, 2023, the MSD of Wayne Township honored Tyson for her work caring for her students beyond the classroom as the district’s 2023 Elementary Teacher of the Year.

Beginning at Westlake Elementary School

In 2003, Tyson graduated from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) with her degree in elementary education. Tyson always knew she wanted a career where she had a direct impact on someone’s life, she said. She fell further in love working with young children throughout her program when she saw how she helped them grow as individuals.

While at IUPUI, Tyson also became friends with Kristin Watson. After graduating together, Watson became a first-grade teacher at Westlake Elementary while Tyson taught for two years at Indianapolis Lighthouse Charter School.

When Watson transitioned to teaching fourth graders at Westlake Elementary School, Tyson saw this open role and called Watson to ask her opinion about whether she would be a good fit at the school. Now, Tyson and Watson have worked together at Westlake Elementary for nearly 20 years.

Currently, they collaborate as co-presidents of Westlake Elementary School’s Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) where they host fundraisers and plan events for parents, teachers, and students to bridge the gap between home and school. Recently, Tyson and Watson planned a father-daughter dance and a mother-son game night — two events they haven’t been able to host since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When students see their parents involved [in their education], they take a stronger interest in school and a greater sense of responsibility,” Tyson said, “[Students think], ‘I want to make sure I’m doing my best work because my mom could walk down the hallway and see my work on the wall.’ When students know that school isn’t just a place for teachers, but it’s a place for families, then that school-home gap is really bridged.”

Tyson is also an intervention team facilitator at Westlake Elementary School. In this role, Tyson and other facilitators meet teachers with students who are struggling academically or behaviorally. Together, they brainstorm strategies these teachers can implement in their classroom to help their students.

If there is a kindergartner who is struggling with their letter recognition, Tyson said, her team may suggest that the teacher focuses on only three letters for the next three weeks with this student. If a student has a behavioral issue, Tyson and her team may help the teacher create an incentive chart with small, attainable goals and motivators, such as fruit snacks or 15 minutes with a preferred adult in the building.

Making connections in the classroom

Since Tyson began teaching at Westlake Elementary School, she has worked with Jim Caughey, who has been a first-grade teacher at the school since 1999. For the past 12 years, Tyson has also worked with her classroom neighbor and first-grade teacher Shanea Kelley, who was Wayne Township’s 2022 Elementary Teacher of the Year.

Together, Tyson, Caughey and Kelley are a part of Westlake Elementary School’s first-grade team of veteran teachers who each have more than 12 years of education experience. As the school year winds down, they are honing-in on topics their first graders should know before becoming second graders, Kelley said, such as decoding writing patterns, like persuasive writing.

Tyson and her fellow Westlake Elementary School teachers are also dedicated to social emotional learning and responsive teaching, Tyson said, as she ensures she is accurately representing all her students in their curriculum. For example, when Tyson’s students were learning about the continents of the world, she said, she showed on a map and discussed with her students the African country of Nigeria, as she has several Nigerian students in her classroom.

Tyson wants her students to appreciate everyone’s differences, she said. While someone may look different, have a disability, or practice a different religion than their own, she said, everyone has something valuable to share, and her students can learn from those differences.

“I had the privilege of having one of [Tyson’s] children in my class, and I saw the way she treats her students is the way that she treats her own child,” Caughey said. “She goes far beyond the classroom and the school day. She makes sure that they’re fed. She thinks about them, and she worries about them. She just goes over and above as a teacher.”

Honored and humbled

While Watson worked in Tyson’s classroom this school year as a reading specialist, Watson said, she was in awe of how much Tyson’s wide range of learners have grown and flourished since July, which led her to nominate and vote Tyson for Westlake’s Teacher of the Year.

Watson was at home with a migraine during the award ceremony in April, she said, so instead, she had one of Tyson’s daughters FaceTiming her, so she could scream and celebrate over the phone for Tyson while she was awarded Wayne Township’s Elementary Teacher of the Year.

Because Tyson had a challenging class this year with her students’ wide range of abilities and needs, Caughey said, it was a beautiful moment when he attended the award ceremony and saw her honored for the outstanding work she does to help her students achieve their personal bests.

“When I see her handle her class, it motivates me to be better for my class,” Caughey said. “I honestly wonder if I could have taken the challenges that she’s faced and face them with a smile day in and day out like she does.”

When Tyson found out in February she was Westlake’s Teacher of the Year, she was humbled that her colleagues nominated and voted for her, she said. It felt so rewarding when she was also honored as Wayne Township’s Elementary Teacher of the Year, she said, because it meant others had recognized her hard work this school year to meet all her students’ needs.

“Finding out that I was Wayne Township’s Elementary Teacher of the Year — I have no words to describe what that means to me,” Tyson said. “I’ve never been one to boast or do things for show. I do what I do because I feel that strongly about it. I want my kids to be the best that they can be. I’m honored they would choose little old me, Desiree Tyson, first-grade teacher at Westlake.”