Every teacher wants to see their students succeed, but it takes a particularly dedicated one to put in the extra time and effort to ensure that happens. Sara Medalen is one of those teachers.
And she's not just an amazing educator, but a darn good hairstylist, too. After teaching for 26 years and loving each and every day of it, Medalen created Books & Braids salon at Sunnyside Elementary in Minot, North Dakota to help her students improve their reading skills with some quality one-on-one time before school. "About a year ago I had a student who always had her hair fixed nicely, and her Mom went out of town for a week and her hair was a disaster," Medalen told A Plus via email. "She was the only one that came to our reading group that day so I asked if she wanted me to braid her hair while she read."
A few months ago, the student asked Medalen to braid her hair again while reading to her and, voila, Books & Braids was born. "It was such a beautiful moment listening to her precious little voice read while I braided, and the idea just popped into my head," she explained. "It is such a simple concept, and honestly it is my favorite part of the day. The special [one-on-one] time is as awesome for me as it is for the girls... They are so proud and excited about their hair when I'm done." Several teachers have also noticed, telling Medalen "how the girls seem to have extra confidence when they walk into the room after Books & Braids."
Medalen even made an appointment book the little girls can use to sign up. To make their time together even more special, Medalen introduces herself as a separate salon persona: "Hello, I'm Sara, I'll be your stylist today. How would you like me to do your hair?" Not only does each student walk out with a new do, but they also get to choose hair accessories and go home with their very own comb. "It's funny, but getting to keep the comb has been such a big deal to them," Medalen added. A local insurance agent is also donating a "salon chair" so Medalen no longer has to kneel on the floor.
Already in its first few months, Medalen has already seen the positive ways Books & Braids has impacted her students.
"My hope is that Books & Braids will help students associate reading with something positive and relaxing... For kids who need a little extra boost in reading, it can be really stressful," she said. "Hopefully, this positive reading experience will inspire them to read more. If they read more... they will certainly become better readers!" As a Title I Reading and Math teacher, Medalen works with a high percentage of children from low-income families who may "need a little extra TLC" in those subjects.
While the majority of Medalen's salon clients have been girls, she has invited any boy interested to make an appointment. "I would never discriminate, so boys are welcome," she explained. "Maybe I'll just spiff their hair up or something." Medalen also noted that the male before-and-after-school coordinator and she have been "tossing around some ideas" to implement an equivalent program for boys.
In the meantime, Medalen hopes to help as many students as possible. After her friend Kelly Boswell posted a picture of Medalen to the Love What Matters Facebook page, that number could become bigger than she could ever imagine. More than 30,000 people have liked the picture since April 14.
"When I look at all of the post shares and likes, I get super excited thinking about the number of kids who may benefit from this one simple idea," she said."I hope many teachers take this idea and run with it. I know that so many teachers are working so hard every single day trying to make a difference for students."
She encourages other educators to take whatever their unique talent is and apply it in the classroom however they can. "I believe the best way to make learning joyful for kids is to make a personal connection with them," she said. "There is so much research out there about how just one person can make a difference, and I just so badly want students to be the very best version of themselves that they can be."
Like many teachers, including her "amazing" colleagues and administrator at Sunnyside, Medalen believes no amount of time devoted to her kids is too much. "It's easy to do because honestly it fills me up, too. I just absolutely treasure that time," she said. "If I can make a difference in the life of even one student, it's worth it!"