Spotlight: Erica Stephens (TN '18)March 15, 2019
Erica Stephens (TN ’18) loves the sincerity and enthusiasm of elementary students: “No matter where they are, you can reach them.” The fourth-grade math teacher won the Milken Educator Award at John P. Freeman Optional School in Memphis on October 25, 2018.
Milken Family Foundation: How did you land in education?
Erica Stephens: I did not land in education—it landed on me. Education is truly a calling. I tutored a neighbor in third grade, and now I understand why his grandfather asked me to work with him. That age is vitally important for success, especially if you do not have supportive teachers in your educational career.
I decided to teach in 1997, during orientation at Middle Tennessee State University. It was a room full of students, plus my parents and me. I was sitting there with my mom (the registered nurse) and my father (the successful furniture salesman). What was I supposed to do?
Teach. The way they taught me. The way my grandmas Ruby and Odessa taught me. The way my uncle Al taught me, the way my aunts Cecelia and Mona taught me. The way my sisters DeBorah, Terri, Felicia, Michelle, Melissa and Melanie taught me. The way my brothers James, Rokenya and Walter taught me. Uncle Michael, Clarence and Dale. My cousins Sheila, Cynthia, Darrell, Mark, Mickey, Priscilla, Valencia and Donald. The way my children Terica, LeNorah, Colton and Isabella teach me. The way my cousins Garmer, Taurus, Cynthia and Freda teach me. The way my younger cousins Derrick, Darrius, Melaneece, Alexis and Darrell teach me. The way Tiereney, Brittany, Amaiyah and Dana teach me.
Many people misunderstand the roles of different people in their lives. I understand the importance of losing yourself to understand your purpose.
MFF: Why elementary school?
Erica: Elementary students are genuine. They are themselves no matter who you are. They love every day no matter what changes. I chose elementary because no matter where they are, you can reach them. But you must be important to yourself.
MFF: You believe that educators should be held in the same high esteem we have for doctors, lawyers and engineers. How do we create this change in our society?
Erica: First, know that I want the best for all! When a doctor says you have cancer, you go to another doctor if you don’t like the diagnosis—but you don’t disparage them. We must understand our students and provide a way for them to succeed that allows them to feel empowered and understand what they can change in this world.
MFF: Who are your role models?
Erica: My pre-K teachers, who helped me understand how God influences all decisions. Mrs. Carter in kindergarten, loving, motherly, yet firm. What she said, she meant—it made me conscious of how to make decisions.
Mrs. Jones, first grade: resilient, caring, firm, and attentive to all needs, including Vonroe (that’s another story for another time). Second, grade, Mrs. Saunders: She showed me how our children’s decisions are not a reflection of ourselves. Third grade, Ms. Plawecki: I wasn’t in the gifted program like my sisters, but she made me realize I was just as smart. Fourth grade, Mrs. Andrews, my mother as a teacher.
Fifth grade, Mr. Ramsey. He gave me my first failing grade. You want to know why? I failed to put my assignments in the crate. I did them—in the parent-teacher conference when he asked for my folder, all my assignments were there. He was a constant reminder of the concessions we must make for students to feel successful in their learning experiences.
MFF: Tell us about your first year of teaching.
Erica: My first year of teaching was both rewarding and challenging. I remember needing support to understand what data meant, what needed to be graded, learn what I did not know. I had one student—if only every new teacher had a Darico. He understood I was young, but I should’ve been trained for every possibility of his life. How do I help them? How does a first-year teacher tell parents that their lives must drastically change for their students to be successful?
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Erica: Insurmountable anxiousness! Surprise does not begin to describe the feeling that overwhelmed me at that time. As soon as they introduced Lowell Milken, I thought, I’ve heard of this before. I was actually on Facebook Live attempting to catch the reaction of the teacher that was receiving the Milken Award when he said my name. I remember telling myself to breathe, over and over again … Keep it together, Erica … this is happening to you … he just called your name … OMG!!!! My sister came and hugged me, there were district people around me saying congratulations. I was in awe.
MFF: How did your students respond to your Milken Award?
Erica: I honestly feel that the Award has set them on a different trajectory in life. Mr. Milken came to the class and spoke to them about how he was able to empower teachers at this level because he had listened and learned about investments. Then he related it all to the Pythagorean theorem—how often does that happen in a class? Someone that is clearly more financially successful than their teacher related that success to mathematics! The Award has influenced not only my current students, but everyone I’ve had for the past four years. I am constantly conversing with my students about dedication, resilience, grit and grind.
MFF: How do you think you’ll use your $25,000 Award?
Erica: To further my teaching career, next year I will pursue National Board Certification.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Erica: Success is knowing what makes me feel best. My students know we look to the standards set every year for state assessments. When we meet that goal we are above and beyond.
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