Plano Middle School teacher proud to give representation to students of color

Sydney Hackley pulls up a seat to help a table of students with their classwork at Plano Middle School on Tuesday April 4, 2023.

Sydney Hackley is a seventh grade math and science teacher at Plano Middle School. She said she has a knack for connecting with her students and feels that as an African-American she brings some much needed representation to Plano School District 88.

Hackley grew up in Maryland and Virginia, although her family moved all around the East Coast. She moved to Geneva just before her first year at Geneva High School and, after graduating, went to Aurora University, where she planned to study nursing.

Growing up, Hackley often worked as a babysitter and helped with the child care program at her church. She said during her nursing school clinicals was when she realized how much she missed working with children and that she wanted to be a teacher.

During nursing school, Hackley said she thought back to her second grade teacher, Mrs. Kidd, and how she made her students feel, and that’s when it clicked.

“If I could just have that impact on kids, to be that loving, warm person that they could always go to and feel comfort with,” Hackley said, “That’s what I want.”

After earning her bachelor’s degree in education, Hackley taught for a year as a long-term substitute in the Batavia School District before taking a job at Plano Middle School teaching seventh grade math and science. She now is in her fourth year at the school.

Sydney Hackley (front) with one of her seventh grade classes at Plano Middle School on Tuesday April 4, 2023.

Hackley lives in Plano with her daughter, who is in fourth grade, and their cat, two dogs and two geckos. She said the geckos, however, often travel between home, school, and sometimes home with students during breaks.

Hackley had never been to Plano before interviewing for the job, but said she has found her happy place and has no plans to leave. She said she enjoys the small-town atmosphere and loves running into her students around town and teaching siblings of former students.

In her four years in Plano, Hackley said she has become more confident in her thoughts and abilities and more comfortable making suggestions on how some of the students can be better supported on a cultural perspective.

“If I can be that one teacher for the student who has never had a teacher that looked like them, I’ll be that,”

—  Sydney Hackley, Plano Middle School math and science teacher

Before taking the position, Hackley was deciding between Plano and Aurora school districts. She was familiar with the Aurora school districts, but said the deciding factor was where she could best be a representative for the students. She said she chose Plano because she knew the Aurora school districts already had a lot of representation in their staff, but Plano did not, and she knew she would make a strong impact teaching in Plano.

Although their staff does not have as much diversity as in Aurora, Hackley said Plano School District works hard to find ways to acknowledge different cultures and show them care and support.

“We want to find ways to say, ‘hey, we care about you guys, we care about your experiences, and we want to celebrate those,’ ” Hackley said. “I feel that that’s super important, that your staff should represent the students they are teaching.”

Hackley said many students might not have a teacher who looks like them until they get into higher education.

“If I can be that one teacher for the student who has never had a teacher that looked like them, I’ll be that,” Hackley said.

Hackley said she would encourage young Black Americans to pursue a career in education, because there aren’t nearly enough, and representation is hugely important.

“I think the more of us there are, it just gives students of color that representation of, ‘Hey, I see myself doing different things in different roles throughout society, and maybe I could do that too, ‘ “ Hackley said.

Hackley said her fellow teachers in the district are very understanding and want to learn more, and the students are very accepting.

“I think all the students are super welcoming of each other and very kind,” Hackley said. “Overall, their acceptance is phenomenal.”

Sydney Hackley teaching one of her seventh grade classes at Plano Middle School on Tuesday April 4, 2023.

The 2019-20 school year was Hackley’s first in the Plano School District and first permanent teaching position. She said that year was rough on all teachers, as COVID-19 caused an abrupt ending to their time with their students.

“We never really got closure with that group of students,” Hackley said. “We didn’t get to say goodbye, and by the time they were allowed to return, they were somebody else’s students.”

Hackley said teaching methods are getting back to where they were before COVID-19. She said when they returned to class after the pandemic, both she and her students were ready to get back to paper and off the computers. Now, Hackley said she tries to have a good mix of technology and paperwork during class time and for assignments.

“Technology is a wonderful tool, but at the same time there are flaws to it,” Hackley said. “It’s super easy for students to get distracted or off task, just being on their Chromebooks.”

Hackley said her favorite part about teaching is connecting with the students and the relationships she builds with them.

“They make the day. Just to be there along on that ride with them while they’re trying to figure things out and to be that support for them,” Hackley said, “That is the absolute best.”

Hackley said she has always been a lover of science, but was never fond of math. She said she often uses her own struggles with math growing up to help her relate to students, often commiserating, but also sharing the tricks that helped her at their age.

Hackley said her seventh graders often are going through their own things outside of school, and some days she has to read the energy of the room and base her energy off theirs before she starts trying to engage them.

“I’ve always been told I’m good at relating to and connecting with kids,” Hackley said. “I’m not sure how I do it, but I know I’m really good at it.”

Sydney Hackley and her seventh grade science class on starfish dissection day, March 24 2023, at Plano Middle School.

Hackley said one of teaching’s biggest challenges is making sure students and parents continuously are held accountable. She said it is important to have the understanding that teachers and other stakeholders outside of education are on the same team.

“We have to make sure that we’re going to work together toward a common goal,” Hackley said, “And that goal is making sure these students are brought up in an education system that prepares them to go out into the world.”

Hackley said being a teacher has taught her many things, most recently, not to assume. She said it’s easy to tell a student not to do something and assume they understand why, but it is much better to take the time to help them understand. She compares her teaching style to teaching children to swim by throwing them in the deep end. She said some students learn to swim right away, while others might need to be thrown a floaty before they get the hang of it.

In this metaphor, the pool is her lesson plan, swimming is students navigating through the content and learning, and the floaties are her assistance and support. She said that this way she learns what each student is capable of, and they learn to communicate what they need and ask for help.

“I always tell them, even if you can’t swim right away, if you have two floaties, you’re not going to drown because I’ve given you the support you need, but it’s on you to swim from there,” Hackley said.