Award-winning teacher motivates students to challenge history
Anna Sifford, a history teacher at Hillcrest High School exemplifies the phrase service above self—which is the name of the award she received from the Rotary Club earlier this year. While she admits her classes challenge students to think beyond their comfort zone, she meets her students where they are and encourages them along the way.
Sifford teaches International Baccalaureate 20th-Century world topics, IB history of the Americas, and Advanced Placement U.S. history, and she said she feels she is not just preparing her students for college, but that her classes also prepare them for life and to be future leaders.
Sifford has visited 34 countries and is involved with the World Affairs Council. Some of her accomplishments include being part of the United Arab Emirates Study Tour this year, T.E.A.C.H. Fellow (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), U.S.-Morocco Alliance education cohort, Marshall Fellow through the World Affairs Council, and is a previous recipient of the International Educator of the Year given by the World Affairs Council.
“Winning the Rotary Club award showed me that what I’m doing is right,” Sifford said. She says she established a nonprofit—Action Allies United—inspired by the award for students, hers and those from across the community, who hope to major in international relations, diplomacy or policy, or medical anthropology, which is a brand-new major.
The purpose of the Rotary Club of Dallas “Service Above Self Award” is to call attention to the importance of service in our community and provides teachers an opportunity to recognize and reward those who have demonstrated excellence in their profession by “going the extra mile,” according to their website. The winners each received an engraved plaque and a cash award.
“The award showed me that it’s worth all those hours, and that it’s worth every Saturday where I go to have coffee with someone who’s just going to cry for an hour and then we’re going to work on their essay, ” she said.
Sifford says that it’s about hearing her students and helping them get through those hurdles. For example, a student might need help writing something they feel like they can’t understand, but she knows they can.
“I’ve had nothing but lovable kids, and I think it’s all just because of the mindset,” Sifford said. “We do work for them, and as a teacher you have one job: to make sure they succeed, right? So you do whatever it takes to make that happen.”
One of the things that Sifford does to help her students be successful is a podcast on Spotify in which she creates content from her class that her students can tune into and learn. For example, students may have a unit test coming up, and they can tune into her podcast to help prepare them for the exam.
“These kids learn through podcasts. I didn’t,” Sifford said. “So that’s very foreign to me, but it’s not to them. Service above self is meeting kids at their level, right?”
Sifford graduated from Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, where she studied dance—specifically tap and flamenco. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and political science from SMU and a master’s degree in diplomacy and international relations from Seton Hall University in New Jersey. Her previous careers before becoming a teacher included working for seven years at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City and the United Nations. She began her career as an educator in 2007 and came to teach at Dallas ISD in 2014.
When Sifford was in Dubai and Abu Dhabi for the United Arab Emirates Study Tour, she was one of the 50 faces of persons from around the world to be the face of the UAE. The pictures are part of a campaign celebrating the country’s 50th anniversary.
Through her years as a teacher, Sifford has always had a Junior World Affairs Council on every campus she has taught. The nonprofit she created serves the same purpose.
One of the upcoming projects that Sifford has with her nonprofit is taking 17 students in March to Casablanca and Marrakech to do earthquake disaster relief for a girls’ dormitory that was hit by the earthquake this past September. In addition to taking the money her organization has raised for the project, they will be meeting with an IB school in Casablanca. They have also created their own negotiation simulation. Instead of Model UN, they have created their own called “Lunar Accords” to address the current crisis in the Middle East.
“The intent is about how their generation can move forward because it’s going to be up to them,” she said.
Sifford said that she is doing what she loves to do because her passion is history. One of her favorite things is giving students the tools inside her classroom to be historians. Her class is very different from just lecturing from a podium. She challenges her students to research and question.
“So, in my class, the higher the grade usually means you argued with me the most, because that’s what history calls for. So, I need a room full of contrarians,” Sifford said.
Sifford’s classes have the reputation of being among the hardest on campus, but it’s the class that students have told her goes by the fastest, where they can speak their mind, she said. Some of them even change their areas of interest to history or diplomacy.
“I think it’s only because I’ve given them the power to interpret history their own way,” she said.