With over four decades of teaching experience, Tammy Stephens is often asked for advice by younger colleagues and aspiring educators.
Her most helpful answer relates to what she does whenever she’s in need of inspiration.
“Go sit in on as many classes as possible, where you can just observe,” said Stephens, an English teacher at Bear Lake High School in Montpelier, Idaho. “I still love doing that every chance I get. When I start feeling tired or a little bit burned out, I visit other teachers and find out what’s going on in their classrooms.
“Because it’s so easy to just close my door and become my own little world. You forget that there’s a wider world out there.”
As the optimism of a new school year arrives, Stephens said it’s important for educators to maintain that positive outlook amid the typical ebbs and flows of the months ahead. Stephens does so by reminding herself of the potential life-changing impact she can make on students by building relationships with them.
“This career is so wonderful because we get to spend day after day with the same students and get to know them on a personal level,” Stephens said. “Because of that, I’m able to challenge them to do more than they thought they could do.”
That authentic enthusiasm for the role of an educator is among many reasons why Stephens is the first to receive Summit Learning’s “Teacher Spotlight” honor for the 2022-23 school year. Now in its second year, the spotlight is a monthly celebration for educators who go above and beyond to provide meaningful learning experiences for their students.
‘She is always there for me when I need her.’
Bear Lake High School senior Victoria Reese is honored to be one of those students who Stephens has directly impacted. Each student at Bear Lake has a dedicated adult mentor that they meet one-on-one with at least once a week. For the past three years, Stephens has proudly served as Reese’s mentor.
“She is always there for me when I need her,” Reese said. “Our check-ins are filled with great conversations that help me grow as a student and as a person. She is a very caring teacher who is always looking out for her students. Without Mrs. Stephens’ help, I would not be the person I am today.”
Stephens acknowledged that sometimes she comes home at the end of a long day “emotionally drained.” She knows that establishing a healthy work-life balance is easier said than done for many teachers, but it’s something she’s learned to embrace in recent years.
Stephens, who heard talk of “teacher burnout” even before the pandemic brought that issue back to the forefront, emphasizes to her peers that “students need us at our best.”
“I used to always work, work, work, during breaks, but I definitely take the time off now when I can,” Stephens said. “It’s realizing that we can’t be helpful to others unless we’re helpful to ourselves, and it’s not being selfish. It’s actually being the best we can be and to remember that we need our time, too. We all need self-care these days.”
‘This is just the greatest job.’
But as much as Stephens enjoys her “me time,” it’s clear in her voice that her Bear Lake students are her top priority and passion. Even after 40-plus years of teaching, it’s hard for Stephens to think about a potential retirement timeline because she’s still so fully present and engaged with her current students.
“It’s more important than ever before to really get to know our students one-to-one,” Stephens said. “Even those students you may interact with only occasionally, try to find out a little bit more about them. Find out what they enjoy, what makes them tick, and then you’ll learn how you can reach them best.
“I really feel like what we do in the classroom is vitally important to their future, no matter what their future is. It’s so important for our students to figure out what they want to do and be able to take those lifelong skills with them away from high school.”
As Stephens reflected on her former students who have become successful adults—including several who followed in her footsteps to become a teacher—she summed up her career in a simple and profound way.
“This is just the greatest job,” she said. “I’m so lucky.”
Do you know a teacher who is going above and beyond to support their students? If so, please nominate them to receive the Summit Learning Teacher Spotlight through this form.