Spartanburg Elementary School Teacher is State’s New Public Education Ambassador
When Stephanie Seay was young, she dreamed of becoming a professional gymnast, an Air Force pilot or a child psychologist. Although she longed to make the world a better place, she also wanted a large salary with a nameplate on her office door. Because of her natural ability to connect with children, many people urged her to teach. But convinced that teaching was too easy, she pursued a degree in psychology.
By the time Seay became a college junior, she still longed to make a positive impact on the world, but maturity and experience had taught her that some things were more important than money or position. She changed her major to early childhood education. Today her greatest accomplishments are not in the degrees, certificates or plaques that line the walls of her home. They hang in a quilt in her classroom. Helping children and parents believe in their dreams and empowering them to reach them is her reward.
Seay, who teaches kindergarten at Wellford Elementary School in Spartanburg School District 5, was named South Carolina Teacher of the Year tonight. State Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum made the surprise announcement at a banquet at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center that honored the state’s 85 district teachers of the year.
“Stephanie’s personal teaching style reflects her belief of sharing ownership,” Tenenbaum said. “She sets ambitious but reasonable expectations, taking into account each child’s specific needs and strengths. Her classroom goals are based on the state’s academic standards, knowledge about best practices and 10 years of experience. She creates an environment that allows children to be active learners, and her students construct their own knowledge through meaningful interactions with people, materials and ideas.”
As State Teacher of the Year for the 2005-2006 school year, Seay will take a yearlong sabbatical from the classroom to represent South Carolina’s 50,000 teachers. She also received a $25,000 cash award and a BMW Z4 roadster to use for the year.
Four Honor Roll teachers who were finalists for the award each received $10,000. They and the State Teacher of the Year were also awarded laptop computers and a set of Michelin tires. All 85 teachers received various gifts donated by corporate sponsors. Each district teacher received $1,000.
The State Teacher of the Year and all four members of the Honor Roll hold the prestigious certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.
A little boy named “Curtis” was the strongest factor in Stephanie Seay’s decision to become a teacher. She met “Curtis” while she was student teaching. He lived with his great grandmother. His grandmother was in prison, and his mother was in a drug rehabilitation center. He had been abused by his biological father and struggled to deal with the aftermath of abuse and abandonment. Some days, Curtis would curl up in her lap as they read a book together. Other days, he hurled his chair at her from across the room. Curtis changed Seay’s mind about one thing: There was nothing easy about being a teacher. On her final day of student teaching, Curtis gave her a letter that read,” I love you because you are my teacher.” He needed no other reason.
“Since that time, I have met many ‘Curtises.’ I have helped children deal with divorce, the loss of a pet, and the struggle of tying shoelaces. I have felt a sense of accomplishment when children have learned to cross monkey bars, read a book independently or apologize for hurting a classmate. I have encouraged parents to pursue high school diplomas and college degrees. I have attended birthday parties and memorial services. I have held tiny hands and received big hugs. Building relationships with the families I serve has been my greatest contribution and my greatest reward.”
Seay believes the most effective way to inspire students and their families is to take an active role in supporting and strengthening the community. Wellford Elementary School’s belief that “Everyone is responsible for the greater good” is something that she takes to heart. Her students visit a retirement home several times each year, and they have helped sew quilts that were donated to shelters in the winter. Much of community service revolves around fitness. She established a “Fit Kids” program that fosters healthy, physically active lifestyles in young children, and she teaches fitness classes in the evenings and on weekends at area gyms.
An adjunct professor and mentor to early childhood education students at Presbyterian College, Seay is a successful grant writer. She is a staff development leader and has presented and facilitated workshops on school readiness and assessment. She received a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education from the University of South Carolina-Upstate and a master’s degree in elementary education from Furman University.