Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Spotlight: Stephanie Conklin (KS '16)

December 5, 2016

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Principal Stephanie Conklin (KS '16) hopes her students remember Brougham Elementary School in Olathe as a safe and comfortable place to learn, grow and make mistakes, but she's realistic: "They'll probably remember the time I got duct-taped to the wall." She received Kansas' 2016-17 Milken Educator Award on October 7, 2016.

Milken Educator Awards: How did you end up in education?

Stephanie Conklin: At a very early age, I was enamored by the educators around me and loved to play "school" all the time. When it came time to select a career, I originally chose a psychology major with the idea of becoming a school psychologist. Studying how the brain works was very intriguing and interesting to me, and working with kids in a school setting would give me the opportunity to make a positive impact on the world. I learned quickly, however, that it would be difficult for me to get a job right out of college with an undergraduate psychology degree.

A few friends on my dorm floor in McMindes Hall at Fort Hays State University were pursuing degrees in elementary education and were already reminiscing about observations and time they were spending in classrooms. I found myself envious and changed my major by the end of my first year. I took my first classes in the school of education and knew right away that I had made the right decision. I continued taking psychology classes and got my minor in the field knowing that the classes would only help me to be a great teacher.

MEA: What’s your favorite thing about elementary school kids? What’s the most frustrating thing?

Stephanie: Elementary school kids are the best! They come to school with an innate passion for learning and so much joy in their hearts. A smile, a "great job," a hug, a star on their paper can truly make their day. They are observant and curious about the world around them. It is our job as elementary educators to build upon their passion to develop them into lifelong learners.

The most frustrating thing about elementary school kids is their inability to communicate their needs effectively. There are many students in the elementary setting that are dealing with challenging or traumatic situations outside of school and it can be a puzzle to figure out how to help them emotionally so they can access the academic content during the school day.

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MEA: What was your first job?

Stephanie: Working at McDonald's in my small town of Beloit, Kansas. I was 16 years old and it paid more than minimum wage. I participated in many high school activities so I needed a job that would allow me flexibility and the ability to work weekends. I did everything from taking orders in the drive-through to cooking. What I learned from that experience is that any job is what you make out of it. Bringing a positive attitude to your work place and building relationships with those around you can bring happiness and success to any work environment.

MEA: Who was your own most memorable elementary school teacher?

Stephanie: I had great elementary school teachers so it is hard to choose just one. I remember vividly my third-grade teacher, Ms. Jorgensen. She held students to high standards for achieving learning outcomes but also made learning fun and strategically created a strong classroom community. Every year, her class would put on a big production of The Wizard of Oz; I played the Good Witch of the North. At the end of the year, she invited all the kids out to her house to participate in a whole class campout. It was a big deal!

MEA: Any educators in your family?

Stephanie: No. Neither of my parents had college degrees. My mom married my dad and had my older brother right out of high school. Nevertheless, both my parents worked hard and climbed the career ladder in their jobs. They instilled in me at a young age that I would be going to college. They recognized the doors that would open to me with a college education and always encouraged me to do my best in school. As with most parents, they wanted me to have an easier path to success than they had, and they knew education was the key. A side note: Two of the cousins with whom I spent many hours playing "school" as a child are educators in Kansas. One is a school social worker and counselor in Baldwin, and the other is an early childhood educator in Salina.

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MEA: What was your favorite subject?

Stephanie: Math. I loved math mostly because I had teachers in middle school and high school that were incredibly passionate and enthusiastic about math (shout-out to Mrs. Goode and Mr. Rowh). They made math interesting by teaching us fun chants and songs to help us remember various procedures and were always committed to each student being successful. I love that there is always a clear, black-and-white answer in math and the satisfaction of filling a whole page with algorithms over the course of several minutes and deriving an answer that could be proven. I also think math is easily relatable to many parts of our daily lives which provides natural motivation to learn.

I honestly loved school and didn't have a class that I truly disliked. I would say the hardest classes for me to tackle were science classes, specifically chemistry and physics. I had trouble wrapping my mind around many of the concepts but survived by asking LOTS of questions and studying extra hard.

MEA: Tell us about your first year in the classroom.

Stephanie: My first class was a fifth-grade class in Kansas City. On the very first day of school right after the bell rang, a student asked to use the restroom. I asked him if he could wait 10 minutes until we went to specials. He nodded. After specials I noticed an odd odor. The student had had an accident. I was completely devastated! I learned right off the bat to always let students go to the bathroom when requested and to have the whole "if it is an emergency" conversation on day one of each school year.

The hardest thing about my first year of teaching was learning how to balance it all. As with most classes, I had students with a wide range of academic abilities. It was difficult learning the curriculum while trying to meet student needs and becoming proficient in my planning and lesson delivery. Fortunately, I had a great mentor teacher as a student teacher who modeled extremely effective classroom management strategies so that was something that really helped in my first years and beyond.

Going into teaching, you know that it is hard work and can be challenging but until you actually do it you really don't know. Teaching takes such an extensive skill set in order to be successful and you really have to be extremely self-reflective and committed. I truly believe teaching is the most challenging yet the most worthwhile and rewarding profession on the planet.

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MEA: What impact do you think your Milken Educator Award presentation had on students at your school?

Stephanie: I think the presentation affected not only our students, but our entire community. The award provided our school an out-of-this-world recognition that I hadn't even dreamed existed. Students were proud of me, their teachers, and themselves for making our school a great place to learn. After school was over that day, a parent called to tell us that her son was so excited when he got home. He kept repeating that "Mrs. Conklin won the Milk ‘n’ Cookies Award" and she wondered what it was all about. We all got a chuckle out of that one!

MEA: What one thing do you hope your students remember about you and their time at your school?

Stephanie: We have a motto at our school: "There’s no place like Brougham." I hope they remember that our school was like a family. I hope they appreciate that it was a safe and comfortable place to learn, grow, and make mistakes. I hope they have positive, memorable learning experiences and remember that I always urged them to work at their personal best. But they'll probably remember the time I was duct-taped to the wall or slimed at an all school assembly!

MEA: How do you involve parents and families in your school?

Stephanie: We know there is a direct correlation between parent involvement and student achievement, so we try to provide as many opportunities for parents to get involved at our school as possible. We have a very active and productive PTO organization that plans great family-friendly events throughout the year, including coffee in the park, muffins with Mom, donuts with Dad, outdoor movie nights, walkathon, holiday boutique and fun fair. They also sponsor a Chat and Chew reading program for our younger students. We have parents who volunteer each week as tutors to support our PAWS program (Panthers Achieving with Support) and parents who lead Battle of the Books teams in the intermediate grades.

In addition to the many parents who volunteer to help teachers regularly, our dads can volunteer for a day through our Watch D.O.G.S program (Dads of Great Students). Parents also facilitate a Service Soldiers after-school club which provides learning activities and projects related to community service. In addition to parent-teacher conferences, we have offered parent training through a symposium format on a variety of relevant topics. Parents in our school are an integral part of the success of our students and our school family.

MEA: What’s your favorite time of the school day?

Stephanie: The beginning. I enjoy greeting students at the front door as they walk in, and I might sneak in a few hugs too. For the most part, kids at Brougham enjoy coming to school each day. But for those who have anxiety or might be more hesitant, it helps them to be greeted at the front door with a smile and a “good morning.” Each day is a new beginning and I know the day is going to be full of possibilities and learning for our students. They will leave our school smarter than when they arrived. Our student leaders who provide assistance as the safety patrol help me pick some upbeat music to kick off the morning announcements. I believe providing a routine and positive energy to start each day is a very crucial component for everyone's success.

MEA: What's the biggest challenge you and your teachers face?

Stephanie: Addressing the needs of the whole child. Many children are coming through the school doors with emotional or social deficits that are caused by trauma or other outside factors. Before we can begin to teach these children academics we have to find a way to help them be ready to learn. This can be very difficult for teachers to do when they have larger class sizes and fewer support staff to help due to educational funding in our state.

MEA: If someone gave you a million dollars to use in your school, what would you do with it?

Stephanie: I would transform my school to become a Leader in Me school. I believe modeling and teaching the 7 Habits would be an invaluable investment for our community. I would provide full-day kindergarten for all students. I would purchase new and improved playground equipment, hire additional teachers to decrease class sizes, and add support staff. I would try to increase plan time for teachers. If I still had money left, I would do something to treat my staff … maybe an end-of-year bonus, huge holiday party or all-expense paid vacation. Educators are the most hard-working people and deserve all the same benefits that are enjoyed in other professions.

MEA: You are known as a strong advocate for universal preschool and full-day kindergarten. Why is this so important?

Stephanie: The social skills developed in a preschool setting are invaluable and essential in providing a strong foundation in the school setting. A full day of kindergarten allows the time necessary for a balance of developmentally appropriate play and building a foundation for academic skills. I believe this step would help provide a more level playing field for all kids and would help to close the achievement gap.

MEA: If you hadn't chosen a career in education, what would you be doing right now?

Stephanie: I can't imagine my life without my career as an educator. It's so much of who I am. If I hadn't made the switch to education, I probably would have continued with psychology. Again, learning how the brain works is fascinating and using my knowledge to help people is something that is important to me. It is how I'm making my mark on the world.

MEA: What can our nation do better to encourage young, capable people to consider teaching as a career and motivate new teachers to stay in the profession?

Stephanie: We need to do a better job of educating the general population about education and its crucial role in shaping the future of our citizens and world. To effectively teach a class of students, it takes far more skills than the average citizen realizes. It is truly an art! We need to elect politicians who build up, support, and value teachers and schools. In short, we can encourage young, capable people to consider teaching when we can show what they do will be valued. Further, prospective teachers need to know that they will be able to get a job after graduating that will help them pay their bills and maintain a comfortable living. Many new teachers find that once they have children, they can no longer afford to work due to rising childcare costs.

MEA: Finish this sentence: "I know I’m succeeding as an educator when ..."

Stephanie: I know we're succeeding as a school community when I see kids competing in our building spelling bee give high fives and thumbs up to their competitors during the competition. I know we're succeeding when a student who is working hard on an articulation goal nails every "r" when she does the school announcements. I know we're succeeding when my non-verbal fourth-grade student can effectively use his assistive technology to communicate his plans for his birthday over the weekend. I know we're succeeding when my usually explosive first-grade student recognizes his anxiety and requests a break. I know we're succeeding when I talk to kids at my weekly luncheons and they proudly share their academic and classroom successes. In sum, I know I'm succeeding as an educator when I observe the daily small successes of students achieving academically, socially, and emotionally.

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