A graduate and teacher at Kalamazoo Public Schools is the 2019 Middle School English Teacher of the Year.
The Michigan Council of Teachers of English named Stephanie Hampton, a teacher at Maple Street Magnet School, the state’s top English teacher, according to a press release from the organization.
Hampton sat at a square desk in her classroom Tuesday, Oct. 29, after students had left for the day, and reflected on her time as a student at Parkwood-Upjohn Elementary School and later Loy Norrix High School.
“I valued the education I got here,” said Hampton, a 2006 KPS graduate. “What they sowed into me, I wanted to give back."
Hampton was part of the first graduating class to receive free college tuition through The Kalamazoo Promise. She studied at Michigan State University for two years before returning home and finishing her degree at Western Michigan University, while interning at KPS. The Kalamazoo Promise was founded in 2005 by anonymous donors to fund college tuition for KPS graduates.
After completing her undergraduate degree, Hampton knew she wanted to return to the local school district. It was the only place she applied to teach while working as a server at Food Dance restaurant in downtown Kalamazoo.
Hampton said she is like other teachers who go into the profession to help children. What was different was her passion for literature and using reading and writing as a way to connect to students. She loves innovation and problem solving.
“Those two things are what make my wheels go,” Hampton said.
She began teaching in district’s Alternative Learning Program in 2010. While teaching, Hampton pursued a graduate degree from WMU, later earning a master’s degree. In 2012, she was transferred to Maple Street Magnet School.
Laura Warren-Gross, librarian at the school, said Hampton works hard to make reading enjoyable for her students. Warren-Gross wrote a letter recommending Hampton for the award. The pair have been working together for about eight years, Warren-Gross said.
“She is a passionate reader and learner,” Warren-Gross said of her colleague. Despite being early in her career, Hampton is a leader at the middle school and is always looking for new ideas.
“She works really hard to challenge kids,” Warren-Gross said. “She makes kids feel good with learning.”
Encouraging quotes cover the walls of Hampton’s classroom, and books are stored in every corner. Some are organized on a bookshelf and others are laid out in colorful bins. Hampton has everything from realistic fiction to fantasy and “Harry Potter" books, as well as classics, books on sports and Greek mythology.
Hampton teaches about 140 sixth-grade students in five classes throughout the day. One of her favorite activities with her classes is to help students imitate authors in their own writing. It helps them see “I can be this published author if I want to be,” Hampton said.
Her classes are currently reading “Ghost Boys" by Jewell Parker Rhodes, the story of a young black boy shot by a police officer when his toy gun is mistaken for a real weapon.
Hampton doesn’t shy away from tough or real-life subjects with her students. They read and annotate news articles on current events. Sitting near her desk at the front of the classroom is the book “A Wreath for Emmett Till,” a 14-year-old African American boy lynched in 1955 after being accused of whistling at a white woman in Mississippi.
Hampton said teaching involves a lot of different variables, like trauma happening outside the classroom and large class sizes, many of which are reasons that young teachers leave the profession early.
“You’re juggling all of these different variables,” Hampton said. “It’s easy to get tired.”
Every day is a new opportunity to seek balance, she said. The chaotic days help her appreciate the calmer ones.
Hampton said she’s transparent with the student teachers she helps mentor at WMU about the challenges of the job, but also shares her passion for helping students.
Hampton felt a lot of different emotions when she got the news she had won the award.
“The most important thing I took away from the experience was that I felt seen,” Hampton said.
District leaders, including teachers, need to work together to make more teachers feel seen -- to feel that their work is appreciated -- in their profession, Hampton said.
“It’s motivating,” she said of that recognition. “It’s encouraging.”
Hampton said her 10- and 11-year-old students should not be asked what they want to do when they are older, but instead should be encouraged to chase after what makes them happy.
She invites her students to write every Friday about any topic that comes to mind. For some students, it might be unicorns. For others, it can be a time to vent about challenges they face at home, she said. All that matters is that students find joy in reading and writing, Hampton said.
Hampton was recognized at the annual fall conference of the Michigan Council of Teachers of English, held Friday, Oct. 18, in East Lansing. In her speech, Hampton said she hoped her students, too, feel seen in her classroom.
She does not have everything figured out about teaching but she shows up to her classroom to do the work, Hampton said.
“This includes celebrating the days when I feel everything is going right and navigating the days when I am feeling like I am doing nothing right at all,” Hampton said.
Founded in 1922, the Michigan Council of Teachers of English is the state affiliate of the National Council of Teachers of English, an organization for K-16 English language arts teachers.