Miss Oklahoma Sunny Day will compete for the title of Miss America in January. But her ultimate goal is to become Oklahoma’s state superintendent of education.
“I wanted to be Miss Oklahoma to advocate for educators and students,” said Day.
The only Miss Oklahoma in history to continue her career during her reign, Day has taught in Western Heights Public Schools for the past six years.
Day’s own traumatic childhood was marked by poverty and substance abuse; she uses those experiences to encourage and support students with similar upbringings, as well as to advocate for all Oklahoma students to have access to trauma-informed and social-emotional learning opportunities. Day has created a free character development program and social-emotional workbook for students, in addition to educator lesson plans, all of which she hopes become more commonplace in
We caught up with Day to get her perspective on the state of education in Oklahoma.
1. What’s been the most memorable part of serving as Miss Oklahoma?
In one month, I visited 32 schools and 10,000 students, from kindergarten to 12th grade. At those assemblies, it’s amazing to see the power of storytelling. My story is deep and hard to talk about … but when I’ve opened up and been vulnerable, it creates a safe place for kids to talk about their own struggles. I’ve had kindergarteners telling me about substance abuse in their families. It’s been healing for me as a person who comes from trauma. I want to let students know they aren’t alone.
2. Why has it been important to you to continue your teaching career during your reign?
When I decided to compete for Miss Oklahoma, I signed a leave of absence, knowing Miss Oklahoma doesn’t typically work. When I won, instead of crying tears of joy, I cried about losing my job and not being in the classroom. I met with my directors and asked if we could find a way for me to continue to work. I worried if I wasn’t in the classroom, I’d forget my ‘why.’
I’ve taught 5th and 6th grade English, but this year I am my school’s emergent bilingual teacher, working with students for whom English is a second language. I’m currently learning Spanish, Vietnamese and Farsi and so much about their cultures. This experience has shown me how much these students can be forgotten, so when I go back to the homeroom setting, I know how to include them more.
3. When did you know you wanted to be an educator?
Not until a week after I graduated college! I’m a first-generation high school and college graduate, so I didn’t have much guidance. I decided on a communications degree, knowing I wanted to work with people. I was attending the teacher walkout with my little brother and sister when I ran into a former teacher and she asked if I’d thought about teaching. She helped me study for my emergency certification, and I passed my test. I live in Norman, but I knew I wanted to work with kids who had upbringings like me, so I did a lot of research and chose Western Heights. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made.
4. What do you wish the general public understood about the teaching profession?
Oklahoma’s numbers, especially in absenteeism and test scores, don’t acknowledge how hard teachers work. It’s discouraging when we see we’re last on the scale [compared to other states] when our teachers are doing A+ work. We wear so many hats — I’m a counselor, nurse, big sister, mom, social worker. We are constantly thinking about our kids and how to help them. We go home with a backpack full of our kids’ personal weight every day.
5. What’s next for you?
When I’m done with my reign, I will start my master’s in administration degree. I would love to be a principal. My long-term goal is to be the state superintendent of education.
6. What do teachers in our state need?
We need better teacher pay, not just for teachers but for our support staff. Paraprofessionals are making $12 an hour and that is unfair. We need to feel validated.
But the number one thing we need is someone in charge, in our state’s position of power, who’s been in the classroom, who actually cares and who is for teachers — not just someone who wants political power.
7. What do students in our state need?
They need patience. We know, because of the pandemic, that they are behind. I wish they understood that it’s OK and it’s not their fault. I also want them to know how valuable education is. That’s why I tell students where I come from — I could have chosen a path to drugs and living on the streets like one of my parents. Education is what changed the trajectory of my life. Kids sometimes think they have to be a product of their environment — but they are in charge of their own futures.
8. What changes are needed in our state’s education system?
One topic that keeps getting brought up politically is social-emotional learning, which is my platform. I wish people knew that addressing these skills is vitally important — we need our students to be happy and healthy to prevent so many of the things that are happening in our world. We cannot expect kids to focus in school and trust us if their basic needs aren’t being met first. There are a lot more kids who come from trauma in our state than those who don’t, so politicians may say these are skills that should be taught in the home, but the reality is there are so many kids who don’t have that accessibility.
It would be life changing for our students if teachers had the right professional development and training to teach these skills. Then, students could go home and teach their siblings and parents these skills. We’d be building better families and ultimately better communities.
9. How are you helping students and teachers learn social-emotional skills during your reign?
I have created the free My Mind Guide workbook, which can be used in classrooms and in the home, for ages kindergarten through 12th grade. You can find techniques for anger management, coping mechanisms, breathing techniques, conflict resolution, affirmations to speak to ourselves, as well as tips for learning empathy, kindness and goal-setting skills. These are all the basic skills we need as humans. I’m also working with local partners to develop a similar guide for ages 5 and under.
On my website, teachers can find all my free lesson plans as well as ideas for creating a calming corner in the classroom, which I believe every classroom should have. This is where kids can go to read, color, meditate or practice breathing exercises to calm their bodies.
10. How can parents best support our education system?
It’s very hard and discouraging to be a parent right now with our political climate. But the best thing you can do is just be involved in your kids’ educations. Read a book with your child. Show them the importance and power of education. Share the value you’ve gotten from education. And get involved in your child’s school.
11. What is giving you hope?
At every school assembly I’ve been to, when I ask students to share what they want to be when they grow up, the most common profession they say is a teacher.
Access Day’s free social-emotional learning resources for teachers, schools and families, including coloring sheets, goal-setting worksheets and more, at skillsbeyondtheclassroom.org.
Create a Calming Corner at Home
A Calming Corner is a designated area where kids can go when they need help regulating their emotions. Create your own corner at home with:
- Comfort items, like stuffed animals, soft blankets and fidget toys
- Visual reminders or a list of steps for breathing and mindfulness techniques
- Coloring, activity pages and/or a journal
- Favorite books