Spotlight: Stephanie Whetstone (LA '18)March 14, 2019
Fifth-grade math and science teacher Stephanie Whetstone (LA ’18) worked in journalism, marketing and public relations before pursuing a career in education: “I enjoyed the work, but something was missing. I wanted to truly make a difference.” She won Louisiana’s 2018-19 Milken Educator Award at Bains Elementary in West Feliciana Parish on January 24, 2019.
Milken Family Foundation: Bains is a Leader in Me Lighthouse School. Why are the Seven Habits a good framework for elementary students?
Stephanie Whetstone: We practice the Seven Habits [of Happy Kids] daily. These are a wonderful framework for everyone, not just elementary students. Our students are at a very impressionable age where lifelong habits can be formed. A lot of the skills students are learning have to do with self-awareness and self-assessment. It helps students take accountability for their learning, their decision-making and their social skills. It’s allowing students the ability to take charge of their learning and celebrate their everyday victories.
MFF: What brought you to education?
Stephanie: After graduation [from college], I was hired as a news reporter at a local station in Lafayette. Then I pursued a career outside of news by becoming a marketing and public relations director for a law firm in Baton Rouge. I enjoyed the work, but something was missing. I wanted to truly make a difference with my work and know that at the end of the day I had helped people. I loved the idea of becoming a teacher, building relationships with students, and hopefully leaving a lasting impression in their lives. Like many educators, I entered the field of education to try to make a difference every day. Even though the days can be long and sometimes challenging, it is one of the most rewarding professions there is. I love helping my students learn—not only math and science, but leadership and life skills.
MFF: Why elementary school?
Stephanie: I started out teaching first through third grades. When I began teaching at my current school I was hired to teach fourth and fifth grades. I told my principal that I was not really into fifth grade, that they were a little too close to middle schoolers with lots of sass. She then asked me to teach fifth grade full-time. I agreed reluctantly—but then I fell in love. Watching them grow academically, physically and socially throughout the year is such a journey! I love that elementary school students (for the most part) love coming to school. As you walk around an elementary school, you will surely be greeted by lots of little people with smiles on their faces. I love that the younger students look up to us as teachers, and to my students as the “big kids” on campus.
MFF: You pioneered student-led conferences at Bains. Why?
Stephanie: At a professional development in 2015, a representative spoke to our school about student-led conferences. My partner teacher and I loved the idea and immediately began working on implementing this in our classrooms. We worked hard to help the students put together leadership binders that would display academic and personal goals, highlight leadership skills and celebrate their victories. We arranged for parents to come before, during, and after school mid-year and at the end of the year.
We received a lot of positive feedback from parents and students concerning the conferences. When parents were unable to make it to school, we partnered the student with an administrator, former teacher or other staff member. The students took complete control of the conferences and shared goals, achievements and self-reflections. One of my favorite moments as an educator is seeing them take complete ownership of their learning and reach for goals that they once thought were impossible. That summer, an action team was created from grade-level representatives to put together binders for every grade level at our school. I am now the committee chair for Student Achievement and every classroom at our school is participating in student-led conferences.
MFF: Who are your role models?
Stephanie: There are several teachers who inspire me, both professionally and personally. There’s Harry Wong for his inspirational messages about classroom management, procedures and expectations. We strive at our school to focus on success criteria and learning intentions, and I think this is in perfect sync with Mr. Wong’s philosophy of ensuring teachers aren’t just teaching students but making them understand why and how.
The next is Brittany Briggs (Miss 5th)—I follow her on Instagram, Pinterest and TpT [Teachers Pay Teachers]. She is young, fresh and full of ideas, mainly concerning classroom community. I have adopted many of her practices, including whiteboard prompts. I believe that if you don’t make your classroom an atmosphere where students feel like they are part of a family, where they are a valuable asset to the class, then it will be much harder to teach them math or science or anything for that matter.
All of my teachers made some sort of impact on my life. I can remember certain lessons that stood out as fun or exciting; those are the lessons that helped shape me as a learner. My third-grade teacher Mrs. Ridenour always made learning so effortless. I remember reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and then acting it out as a class. It was a big production and it made all of us really get into the characters. We were having such a good time and didn’t realize how many skills we were learning through the activity.
Currently, my favorite teachers are my fifth-grade team. Every day I see quotes floating around about your teacher “tribe” or your teacher “besties,” and they are so true. I spend more time with my fellow teachers and my students than I do with my family and friends—it makes sense that these relationships should be strong and positive.
A few years ago I became a mentor to a new teacher in our district. She would teach fifth-grade math and science alongside me, and we would work closely to plan these subjects. It’s funny that even when we mentor others, we end up learning from them. Taylor Adams became not only a fellow teacher or someone I would help mentor but a confidante, encourager and great friend. She helps me plan great lessons, always volunteers to help me with extra activities around school and encourages me on those tough days. She, along with the other fifth-grade teachers, are vital in helping me be a successful teacher.
MFF: Tell us about your first year of teaching.
Stephanie: It was a pretty wild ride. I was asked to take over a special education classroom with students from kindergarten through third grade. The students’ abilities ranged from needing just a few accommodations, to children with autism, to an emotionally disturbed student who sometimes needed to be physically restrained so that he did not hurt himself or others.
Of course, the content I was teaching them was important, but I realized very early on that higher-order thinking for these students would range from “Sit down and pull out your math book” to more difficult tasks, depending on the day or even the hour. Some days I felt like I was changing the world and some days I felt utterly defeated.
I have been so blessed to work at amazing schools with amazing administrators. I’m not sure I would have gotten through my first year without my awesome coworkers and the support of my principal. I grew close to our behavior interventionist, who helped me in many ways. I remember her words of wisdom: “These bad days are the trenches, and if you can get through them, the rest of your teaching days will be bright.”
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Stephanie: I am still shocked and feel so unbelievably honored to have received this Award. I was absolutely blown away when Dr. [Jane] Foley read my name. I was sitting there thinking about how it could be so many different people, because we have an unbelievable group of math teachers at our school. When she said my name, my mouth dropped as I tried to understand what had just happened. There are so many wonderful educators in my school and district and all across the state, so to receive this honor, I feel very blessed.
MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?
Stephanie: My students were so incredibly excited during the Award ceremony. They could not wait to congratulate me, give me hugs and tell me how I should spend my money, ha! It was an amazing experience for us all. I loved seeing them getting interviewed by media as well. It was truly an experience that none of us will ever forget.
As I walk around school, students at every grade level have congratulated me and asked questions about the Award. I think the Milken Education Award is an amazing thing for teachers, schools and the field of education. The goal is to reward teachers for their hard work, get people excited about education, and allow students to see their teacher as a rock star. I certainly think all of this has happened and more.
MFF: How do you think you’ll use your $25,000 Award?
Stephanie: I’m still not sure. My son was born prematurely and we are planning to pay for his hospital bills. I would like to take my family somewhere fun to celebrate. I spend a lot of time outside of school planning and worrying about my classes. My family has sacrificed time with me and should be rewarded too. I am also looking into furthering my education by completing a master’s program in the future.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Stephanie: I think we often look at success as the big picture at the end of a school year, but I try to find success each and every day in my class. Success is seeing students have that “light bulb” moment or seeing students help and teach each other. Success is knowing that I have given my all and so have my students.
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