More than a few tears will fall when the last bell of the 2018-2019 school year rings at Broadwater Elementary school in Helena, Mont. After working 32 years in education, principal Sue Sweeney will move on to the next phase in her life—retirement.
“I’m incredibly grateful for the many memories we’ve shared, which will last for years after the school bell rings on the last day of school,” said Cherelyn Routzahn, who’s been an active Broadwater Parent Teacher Council member and part of the Broadwater family for the past nine years.
“She hasn’t merely taught our children over the years; she has loved them.”
Love of Work
Sweeney’s love for her students, staff, and overall career has been apparent in so many aspects of her work.
She was teaching in Philipsburg, Mont., when she decided to pursue a masters’ degree in educational leadership.
“I never really wanted to be a principal. I just thought leadership was a great degree to get because I thought every teacher should be a leader,” she said. “Every teacher, in fact, is a leader in so many ways.”
Philipsburg Public Schools must have realized they had a true gem, because they hired her on as a principal before Sweeney even completed the coursework of her masters’ program.
Once she found herself in an administrative role, Sweeney decided she had found her place.
“I realized I really like that different view of a school and being able to track growth of students and growth of teachers,” she said. “I love just watching schools change and grow from more of a balcony view.”
Making an Impact
Sweeney eventually applied for a position as principal at Broadwater, where she’s remained for the past 11 years. And the impact she’s had on the school has been impressive, both inside and outside the building.
She worked to make recess more enjoyable for Broadwater students, overseeing the new sod laid on the playground.
She was the first on the dancefloor at school dances, tearing it up with crowds of students surrounding her.
She led scavenger hunts at Spring Meadow Lake or evening hikes up Mount Helena.
She has been the Helena School District’s Montessori Administrator for the last five years. She also organized the two-day Summer Institute for the HSD’s para professionals each year for the past five years.
Under Sweeney’s leadership, Broadwater school received the Montana Behavior Initiative (MBI) Platinum Award, four years in a row. The MBI award process recognizes schools that meet standards for promoting positive school climate and school safety through multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS)—both for academics and behavior.
“It’s easy to be really good at reading, or really good at math, or behavior, but they all braid together—they are all important in the growth of a child,” said Sweeney. “It is a lot of work!”
Hard Work Pays Off
The results of that hard work have paid off, according to Sweeney. “We had a huge decrease in office disciplinary referrals.” She attributed that in large part to the faculty working really hard at getting to know every student in the school, not just those in their own classrooms.
“That kind of work makes kids feel like they have a lot of adults who care about them, not just their classroom teacher,” said Sweeney.
It’s that kind of school climate that has really made Sweeney stand out. In fact, her staff secretly nominated her for Montana’s Nationally Distinguished Principal, which she was awarded in 2017.
Sweeney went to the award ceremony in Great Falls with no clue that Broadwater teachers went to great lengths to show their appreciation for her.
“I’m just sitting there like a dummy, listening to the awards, and then they’re talking about a school,” she said. “I’m like, ‘that sounds like Broadwater,’ and then they announced it was me!”
When Sweeney returned to school the next day, she found her office decorated and full of cards from every student.
“I started bawling. It was really touching!”
Impacting Students Abroad
Sweeney has not only put a lot of work into impacting the lives of Helena students. She has worked hard abroad as well.
In winter of 2018, she stayed a week in Rio Grande in the Dominican Republic, to help convert a two-room school house to a 10-classroom school with the Lifetouch Memory Mission. While Sweeney was there, she and other volunteers constructed the walls for the cafeteria and laid the groundwork for a basketball court. Most of the work—mixing cement, moving bricks, shoveling dirt, and moving it with wheelbarrows—was done by hand.
“Those blocks were heavy,” said Sweeney. “I felt so strong. I passed more buckets of cement than you can even imagine!”
Sweeney really felt a connection with the students she interacted with in Rio Grande. She shared the memories with her Broadwater students back home, noting that Helena students had a hard time wrapping their brains around how fortunate they, themselves, are with our running hot water in their homes.
“I told the kids the next time Mom says to put the dishes in the dishwasher, think about these kids who have to get a bucket, go fill it up with water, bring it back in, heat it up, then wash the dishes,” she said. “There are a few kids who kind of got it, but it’s just a hard thing to explain to an 8-year-old. It’s hard to imagine.”
Sweeney is looking forward to returning to the Dominican Republic for another week, to help build a playground for the same school she helped construct. She departs just a few days after she says goodbye to her Broadwater community.
Leave It While You Love It
It may seem difficult to imagine why Sweeney would want to leave a career she loves so much, but she feels now is a great time to bring closure. She said 20 years into her career, she had planned to leave while she still loved it.
“I know too many people who were tired and bitter and waited too long. I didn’t want to be that person,” she said. “It feels really good to leave when you really love to do it.”
As for what’s next after retirement, Sue couldn’t really say. She is, however, very excited to spend more quality time with her grandsons.
“I want to be a grandma who isn’t so tired from working a 10- to 12-hour day. I’m just ready to go play,” she said.
Until then, Sweeney is braced for a bowlful of tears on that last day of school, as moist-eyed students and staff surround her with hugs and well-wishes. As for her parting advice to the Broadwater community she holds so close to her heart, she didn’t think twice about what she would say.
“For teachers, I think the most important message is to love what you do, because it shows in all that you do,” she said. “If you are loving your career path and your job, and you strive for excellence, then you’ll present as excellent, and that’s what we really want to do. We all want to say ‘I did my best.’”
And for the students of Broadwater Elementary School?
“Students need to realize that everybody is here for them. We want them to get the best education they can, but they have to have a role in that,” said Sweeney. “They need to try their best, too, because they’re going to be excellent grownups some day.” — MSN