Spotlight: Pamela Stepko (VA '22)March 6, 2023
Math interventionist Pamela Stepko (VA ’22) spent time as an assistant principal, and and it’s left a lasting impact: “I now see how all parts of the educational system work together to support our students.” She received her Milken Educator Award at Cumberland Elementary School on December 14, 2022.
Milken Family Foundation: What’s the secret to building students’ confidence in math, a subject with which many struggle?
Pamela Stepko (VA ’22): It’s about creating an environment where they can provide feedback to one another, critique, revise, support, fail forward, and conquer all that they are learning.
MFF: What do you like about working with elementary students?
Pamela: Elementary students are curious and excited to learn. I have enjoyed the opportunity to be creative in developing lessons that increase engagement and student learning.
MFF: How was your first year in the classroom?
Pamela: It was very “by the book” (Harry Wong’s “The First Days of School,” to be exact). I tried to implement all the management, procedures and instructional strategies I had learned in school. At the end of my second year teaching second grade at a Title I school, I celebrated. I had made it through! I had good behavior management! I was organized and prepared!
But I had students with failing grades. Students moving on to the next grade with an F as their final measurement of learning.
This is when my teaching philosophy shifted. I realized the students’ grades reflected my instruction and the lack of opportunities I had provided for them. I had a quiet classroom where I taught the lesson, assessed, put the grade in the grade book, and moved on, checking each standard off my pacing as an accomplishment.
In that moment, I set a goal moving forward: to teach at a deeper level and have ownership over my students’ outcomes. I dug deep into the standards and taught the content at the intended learning level to all students. I provided targeted and individualized support. I wanted them to become engaged, excited, and curious, and to be able to make connections to their learning. As a class, we learned to embrace mistakes as learning opportunities, which in return made our celebrations of success even more powerful.
My students developed ownership of their learning. They were able to justify their thinking and extend and support each other. We learned perseverance, grit and trust, while maintaining high expectations. The students gained confidence in mastering the academic skills, which allowed them to grow as individuals. We had created a new classroom culture, one that was student-centered, where all students could be successful regardless of outside obstacles. And I had grown as a teacher.
MFF: How does your previous work in administration impact your current role?
Pamela: Thanks to my time as an assistant principal, I now see how all parts of the educational system work together to support our students.
MFF: Who are your role models?
Pamela: Jon Gordon is one of my favorite authors in education. His words of encouragement and positive leadership advice have helped me keep a clear focus to walk in my purpose daily. Virginia Gills, my principal, has been an amazing mentor for modeling servant leadership. She encourages all to follow their passion, continue to be lifelong learners, and help support others.
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Pamela: It was a surprise of a lifetime! I was grateful to be surrounded by so many amazing leaders, colleagues and students. In the moment I was thinking, How is this possible? I couldn’t believe the First Lady of Virginia and our state superintendent were there. I was completely filled with gratitude.
MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?
Pamela: Our students were so excited after the assembly. They continue to congratulate me in passing. We have since had conversations about following your passion and dreams.
MFF: Any plans for your $25,000 Award?
Pamela: I plan to put the money towards obtaining a doctorate in education.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Pamela: I define success as having the chance to learn, embrace failure as a learning opportunity, reflect, and conquer all that was intended. And then, at the end, asking yourself: What’s next?
MFF: What do you hope students remember from their time with you?
Pamela: I hope my students remember the relationships we created within our classroom. I hope they remember how confident they were when they mastered their skills. I hope they remember the feeling of celebration for their hard work.
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