KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Good stories have plot twists. Stephanie Hampton's life story is punctuated by an award that might have made her younger self cringe: Middle School English Teacher of the Year.
"As a child I hated all things reading and writing," says Hampton, who grew up wanting to be a veterinarian before discovering her love of literature as a teenager. "It was because of the English department at Loy Norrix High School that I wanted to become a teacher."
Hampton, a Western Michigan University alumna, accepted the award in October at the Michigan Council of Teachers of English annual fall conference. Dr. Karen Vocke, associate professor of English at WMU provided a glowing introduction.
"Stephanie exemplifies the best qualities of an educator: enthusiasm, empathy, a love of people, exceptional knowledge of her subject area, integrity, and being a learner herself," says Vocke, who mentored Hampton as both an undergraduate and graduate student at WMU. "It is all about creating caring relationships with others. Her natural ability to do this shines through!"
Hampton found her calling while exploring the profession in college.
"I really thought that I was going to teach 10th grade American literature out by a tree and talk about Emerson and Thoreau and that was my career path," she remembers. "It was during my internship that I really just clicked with this general English class. They struggled with reading and writing, and I identified with that."
Her next plot twist came after graduation in 2010. Hampton knew she wanted to stay in her hometown of Kalamazoo and return to the school district she grew up in. In fact, she only applied to Kalamazoo Public Schools. The day before teachers were supposed to report to school, she got the call.
"I showed up the next day at 8 a.m. at new teacher training," says Hampton, who was offered a job in the district's Alternative Learning Program, teaching middle school students who struggled in a traditional classroom setting. "That was a crazy whirlwind. I thought high school was going to be the path for me, but I landed exactly where I should have been."
That first teaching job turned out to be a gift in disguise.
"I didn't have enough materials and resources … it forced me into this mindset of problem solving," she says. "I love a good problem and I love innovating and trying to solve in different ways."
Now a sixth-grade English teacher at Maple Street Magnet School for the Arts, Hampton has found her stride—helping students who struggle with reading and writing find their voice and challenging students who excel to take their work to the next level.
"I think the first step in anything is to show you care," says Hampton. "Look at the affirmation we give our students. How often am I giving information in the form of academic or behavior communication? How often am I portraying success? I think that's huge to tap into; that we are highlighting our students' success and encouraging and affirming them, too."
Affirmation and being "seen" was the theme of Hampton's award acceptance speech. Both as a hope for her students but also for her peers. At a time when 10% of Michigan teachers leave the profession every year, she says, the stakes are higher than ever.
"I feel gratitude and joy and I'm very humbled by an award," she says. "But it made me feel seen, and now I'm on a mission to make my peers feel seen, too."
A Fierce Advocate for Students
The best teachers are able to tap into their own style to figure out what works best in the classroom and build on that. For Hampton, there are five non-negotiables central to her teaching.
First, it's imperative to give students time to read and to read with them.
"The single act of promoting a love of reading is the best thing I can do on a daily basis," Hampton said in her acceptance speech.
Second, she uses books as models for students to learn how to write. Every Monday, she asks students to use published books as mentor texts and model their writing after those authors.
"The most powerful part of that is them writing like the authors and me asking, 'Who thinks they beat this author or who thinks they wrote better than that author?'" says Hampton. "Seeing their hands up to say they think they wrote better than a published author is inspiring."
Third, she emphasizes the importance of the library.
"We have a huge disparity of libraries in the state of Michigan, where 92% of our school buildings don't have a certified librarian," she says. "That's a problem."
Fourth, she pushes for kindness.
"Even on a bad day, we have hope," says Hampton. "Empathy and kindness are my main priorities right next to reading."
Finally, she advocates for writing for the joy of writing. Every Friday her students participate in a free writing lesson, where she gives them the freedom to write about whatever they want.
"It's the kids' favorite part of the week," she says. "There's a beauty because a lot of times our students just need an outlet for their feelings."
Hampton realizes that middle school is an important transition time for students—physically and emotionally. She sees it as an opportunity to empower her students.
"Having worldly conversations with middle schoolers is so powerful," says Hampton. "I just don't want to shy away from talking about big ideas and big things just because they're young, because they have big ideas and they think big things. Helping to facilitate conversations is the best part of the job, really."
Adaptability. Curiosity. Love. Three words, Hampton recently told a class of students at WMU, that describe the ideal teaching candidate.
Teachers have to be prepared for problems that might arise and flexible to change. They should be constantly seeking out new strategies to keep their students and themselves excited about learning. And, above all, they need to love what they do.
Hampton routinely imparts wisdom on aspiring teachers at her alma mater, where she's become a mentor in the English Department.
"That department gave me an outlet to figure out how to be a critical thinker and how to also be a researcher," says Hampton. "Looking back, now I understand that teaching in and of itself is live-action research, and they prepared me for those skills that I would need in the classroom."
As a mentor, she often has WMU students do pre-service teaching observations in her classroom and also comes and talks to classes on campus a few times every semester.
"I'll go talk with a Western class and then the students will come in and observe," says Hampton. "It's an ongoing relationship and that's invaluable. That feeds me because I'm also giving some of that teaching back to the University."
The drive to give back is something everyone can learn from.
"Stephanie is exceptional because of the relationships she establishes with her students and colleagues, which makes all the difference," Vocke says. "She is one of the most naturally gifted teachers I have ever worked with; she has made a profound impact on her students, colleagues and community."
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