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Top teacher almost dropped out

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By Todd Martin

Stephanie Schmidt nearly missed out on being named the Shelby County/ExCEL Teacher of the Year for 2009-10.

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Two years ago she left the school system to “decide where I wanted to go, and what I wanted to do next,” she said.

But it wasn’t something new she was looking for. Instead, she said, it was something old and familiar.

“Being in the classroom is what I really loved,” she said. “So I decided that’s what I was going to do.”

That decision got her back in front of students last year, and at Thursday’s school board meeting, Schmidt, a fifth-grade teacher at Heritage Elementary, received this year’s ExCEL award.

“Being in a district like Shelby County and being in the position I was [with the district office], I know Shelby County is full of tremendous teachers,” she said. “And so much had changed in the nearly eight years I was out of the classroom. When I left, we had chalk and chalkboards. Now we have all of this fantastic technology.”

Duanne Puckett, Shelby County Public Schools’ community relations coordinator, said Schmidt’s scores were off the charts.

“For the first time in my 12 years with the SCPS Teacher of the Year competition, one of the finalists received a perfect score of 100 after the judges' interview and observation,” Puckett said at the announcement.

Schmidt said her 32 years in education in Missouri, Florida and Kentucky have shaped the way she works.

“The things I do know are the things that I’ve seen evolve in my journey,” she said. “I have high expectations for my students, I teach them to be independent thinkers, and I try to push them past regular answers. I want them to go above and beyond.”

The judges found all those things to be true in Schmidt’s class, noting that she posed questions throughout the lesson.

In her class on Monday, after students answered questions correctly, she consistently steered them to more information.

“What’s an example of that in American History?” she’d ask. Getting students to relate something they were acting out now with something in the past.

Schmidt also focuses on explaining things to her students instead of just telling them. She explained the lesson they were working as part of the core content, and she told the students that relating history to today through lessons on conflict, cooperation and compromise was a point of emphasis for the school year.

“Children need to see the reason behind what they’re doing,” she said. “Helping them see things through the real world, whether it’s math problems or writing, is a big help.”

The key, she said, is showing that learning never stops and that actions have results on others.

“I want them to know that their actions always make a difference in the lives around them,” she said. “We want to build a community in the classroom and give them the excitement and desire to be life-long learners.

"We put a real emphasis on reading, because that helps so much in the real world. I want them to find the joy in reading and learning.”

Schmidt will be honored by WHAS on May 26, and the announcement for the ExCEL State Teacher of the Year will be made in the fall.

District nominees

Each school had a nominee for the district’s Teacher of the Year award. Each teacher received a framed certificate, $200 for classroom materials and a gift certificate sponsored by several local businesses.

The teachers are: Ebony Hutchinson – Clear Creek Elementary *Stephanie Schmidt – Heritage Elementary Lisa Campbell – Painted Stone Elementary *Christine Terry – Simpsonville Elementary Melanie Robbins – Southside Elementary Karen Vermillion – Wright Elementary Debbie Meredith – East Middle *Kerri Holder – West Middle Betty Anderson – Education Center @ Cropper *Maj. Art Edinger – Shelby County High *Denotes finalist Winner in bold