EHS teacher receives Yale Educator award

Dawson nominated by former student Lane Fischer

Juno Ogle
Ellis High School teacher Alyssa Dawson shows the engraved award she received as a recipient of a 2019 Yale Educator award, the only teacher in Kansas to receive the honor. Dawson was nominated by a former student, Lane Fisher, who is a freshman at Yale. [Juno Ogle, Hays Daily News]

ELLIS — Teachers can sometimes wait years to receive a “thank you” from their students. But one Ellis High School teacher received a big show of gratitude from a 2019 graduate.

EHS English teacher Alyssa Dawson recently was named a 2019 Yale Educator by Yale University, the only educator in Kansas to receive the award.

She was nominated by former student Lane Fischer, a freshman at the ivy-league college in New Haven, Conn.

The award recognizes outstanding educators from around the world who have supported and inspired their students to achieve at high levels, according to a press release from the university.

A committee of Yale admissions officers reviewed this year’s 311 nominees from 40 states and 23 countries. In all, 55 teachers and 18 counselors were selected.

And while the award itself was a surprise to Dawson, she’s not surprised Fischer was behind it. Gratitude comes easily for him, Dawson said.

“For him, it is part of the natural process of his success,” she said.

Ask Dawson about the award, and she talks just as much, if not more, about Fischer than she does herself.

“He’s a very talented young man. He didn’t need a whole lot from me, to be honest,” Dawson said.

Fischer was the only EHS student who was a member of all three Speech and Drama Champion teams, which Dawson coached, from 2016 to 2018.

She’s not surprised Fischer got into Yale. She encouraged him to think big.

At a parent-teacher conference, she asked Fischer’s mother, Melanie, what college he was thinking of applying to. She said her son was headed to Kansas State University — Dawson’s alma mater.

While that pleased Dawson, she thought Fischer would, at the least, enjoy the process of applying to schools on the Common Application, an undergraduate college admission application with 800 member colleges and universities.

She told Melanie Fischer, “I think maybe he should give it a shot because it would be a bit of an adventure and he would like that,” she said.

“The very next day, Lane told me he had started researching schools and was ready to begin writing essays. He hadn’t thought of that either, hadn’t even considered it,” she said.

It was Fischer’s writing talent that made Dawson think he would be interested in applying, she said.

“I looked over every piece of writing he had, not because it needed editing, because he doesn’t need editing,” she said, “but just to think how could they get a sense of this kid who I knew was genuine and warm, and how could he show them that they needed him there.

“It was a matter of just trying to show them that genuine, that warm, that rural brilliance that’s often overlooked,” she said.

One question Fischer had to answer through the admission process was “If you could teach any class at Yale, what would you teach?”

“He said Kindness and Civility in the 21st Century,” Dawson said. “That’s just who he is.”

Fischer had to write a nomination for Dawson’s award, which he did without her knowledge. That makes it even more meaningful to the teacher.

“That means he wrote every word of that application without anyone else seeing it. And that genuine feeling, that warmth, that gratefulness had to have come through because I did win. That to me shows how much he is capable of without me,” she said.

Fischer isn’t the first of her students to go on to a prestigious school, however. She helped Dawson Sproul, a 2018 EHS graduate, through the application process for Stanford University.

“Dawson (Sproul) walked me through the process of what it is to apply to an elite school and what he needed and what kind of teacher support he could have and wanted from me,” she said.

She wasn’t even sure teaching would be the path she followed for her career, even though both her parents are educators.

But while studying for a master’s degree in English at KSU, she worked as a graduate teaching assistant for lower-level English classes.

She said KSU nurtures its teachers, even the GTAs.

“They’re masters students, but they want them to be good teachers to the undergrads. They spend three hours a week teaching their GTAs how to teach,” she said.

After receiving her master’s degree, she taught at KSU for a year as an adjunct professor. What she wanted out of a teaching career was to “bridge that gap between high school and college that frustrates both college professors and high school English teachers,” she said.

She had everything she needed except for a teaching license. The Transition to Teaching program at Fort Hays State University was her avenue for that, so she began looking for a school that would give her a chance.

Ellis looked like a good prospect, she said. It was close to family for both her and her husband and close to a college town. And USD 388 seemed to be looking for what she wanted to offer.

“Ellis ticked all of the boxes. They wanted an upper-level English teacher to teach dual credit. They wanted someone to do theater, and that was a passion and a love of mine in college and throughout graduate school. And they wanted somebody to coach their forensics team,” Dawson said.

“It was like a job that was made for me. I’ve spent the last eight years making it into my dream job, too,” she said.

EHS Principal Donna Schmidt said Dawson is a teacher who goes above and beyond normal duties.

“She’s a great teacher who forms just incredible relationships with her students,” she said. “She not only cares about the students in her classroom, but she cares about all of our students.”