Each year, the Utah Association of School Psychologists announces awards to people “who have made an outstanding contribution to the goals and standards of our profession” in various categories. This year, four of UASP’s five honorees have ties to the McKay School, reflecting not only the service and commitment of the school’s graduates and faculty, but also their professionalism and dedication to improving the lives of children.
“We’ve been trying to increase the numbers of school psychologists for years,” said honoree Tami Gear ('04). “It’s such important work. We need more people studying it, we need more people who graduated and have been working for another career and decide to switch. I started back to school in my 30s and was able to become (a school psychologist), and I’m so grateful and happy I did.”
Here are this year’s honorees who are McKay School alumni or faculty. In addition to the four winners mentioned here, University of Utah school psychology student Heather Lewis was named Student of the Year.
Tami Gear (M ‘04), Lifetime Achievement Award
Gear came to school psychology in her 30s, receiving a graduate degree from the McKay School. Since then, she has served as a school psychologist in local schools and at the district and state level. She currently is coordinator of student support, fiscal, and data for the Utah State Board of Education.
Her UASP nomination documents note that “she solves complex problems, she builds trusting relationships, she takes systems apart and then reassembles them in more efficient and effective manners. She serves students and families and they are better because of her efforts. . . . She truly embodies the mission of UASP by advancing effective practices, research, and policy development to improve students’ learning, behavior, and mental health and advocating for the profession of school psychology and the rights and welfare of children and youth.”
Gear is a passionate advocate for the importance of school psychologists and their role in helping students move through challenges into social and academic success. She teaches courses in topics related to school psychology at Salt Lake Community College and is continually trying to recruit new students to the profession. She also relishes the impact she can have in her current role at the USBE.
“I love working at a state level to make policy and have that level of influence there,” she said. “I really feel school psychologists can make even more of a difference, but there need to be more of us.”
Sterling Stauffer (EDS '11), School Psychologist of the Year
Like Gear, Sterling Stauffer didn’t plan to become a school psychologist. But now that he’s doing it, he loves it.
“I was in my last semester of undergraduate work in psychology, and somehow it had not occurred to me you can’t actually get a job in psychology with a bachelor’s in psychology,” Stauffer said, laughing at the memory. “I have no idea how I got to that point and had never considered that before. I started exploring my options and, at first, the best I was coming up with was assistant manager at a fast food place. I had to broaden my search and ask, how can I get into some sort of work where I’m actually doing psychology work?”
During his search, Stauffer ran across an article in U.S. News and World Report listing school psychology—“I’d never heard of it”—ranked #5 among jobs with the highest job satisfaction. He found out that schools in his hometown of St. George, Utah, employed school psychologists, and decided to go for it. “My parents were both educators; school was always important to me. . . . It was a perfect fit with what I wanted to do.”
In the 11 years since Stauffer began his career, his devotion to the job has only grown. He has taken on leadership roles in UASP and mentored new school psychologists. He currently works as a school psychologist for several schools in Utah’s Washington County School District and was described by those who nominated him for the UASP Award as “calm, professional, helpful, knowledgeable, and overall amazing . . . a testament to the power of our profession.”
Sydnee Dickson (MEd '92), Award for Outstanding Service to Children and Families
The distinguished career of Utah State Board of Education Superintendent Sydnee Dickson began in schools, directly helping and influencing students as a counselor, teacher, and administrator. It’s not surprising, then, that she has a special feeling for the value of school psychologists.
“While I’m sure none of us got into education and counseling to win awards—doing the work of helping students is rewarding in and of itself—it is nonetheless rewarding to be recognized by people who know both how important the work is and how well one of their peers is doing that work,” she said.
Dickson holds degrees not only from the McKay School, but also from Utah State University and the University of Utah. She has worked for USBE for 10 years, serving as superintendent of public instruction since 2016. Her nomination states in part, “We have seen her lead this state with great grace and wisdom, especially during the recent chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic. Both her words and actions as state superintendent have demonstrated great dedication to children in many ways, including those areas that are a focus of school psychologists; social-emotional learning, mental health supports, equitable education for all, and appropriate special education for students with disabilities.”
The nomination noted that Dickson, showing strong awareness of the importance of students’ mental health and social-emotional progress, made sure to include a UASP representative on her coronavirus response committee. Dickson is keenly aware that school psychologists are “in short supply” and considers school-based mental health services “a passion of mine, including advocating for resources to increase mental health services in schools that include funding for school psychologists.”
“I am filled with gratitude to be able to do this kind of work and grateful that this distinguished organization recognizes my support for their work and for them personally,” she said.
Melissa Heath, PhD, Distinguished Service Award
The definition of “stalwart” is “marked by outstanding strength and vigor of body, mind, or spirit . . . unwavering.” That adjective, used in her nomination activities, describes not only Melissa Heath’s contributions to the work of the McKay School as a professor in the counseling psychology and special education department, but also as a tireless member of the Utah Association of School Psychologists.
“Her perspective, knowledge, and passion have contributed so positively to the board and our actions,” Heath’s award announcement reads, noting that Heath has served UASP’s board of directors in multiple roles. “Melissa has always been willing to step up and take tasks as a board member and her collaborative nature has been instrumental in moving us forward. She is continually generous, enthusiastic, and optimistic. She has devoted her life to supporting children, families, and educators. Melissa’s impact on the field of school psychology and the Utah Association of School Psychologists will be felt for a long time to come.”
For UASP, Heath helmed The UASP Observer, initiated tasks to move the work of the association forward, mentored newer members, and even lent her “beautiful eye for photography” to capture images of UASP events. Heath said she is honored to receive the UASP award and excited for to see the ways newer members lead out in future UASP endeavors.
“I have been amazed at the organization's level of expertise and energized by the high hopes of the newer school psychologists,” Heath said. “I admit that they lead me. I follow along because they inspire me to do a better job of training BYU's school psychology graduate students.”