By KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT
Rutherford County Schools
The moment someone discovers Hillary Stephens is a teacher, they all ask the same question.
What do you teach?
She knows exactly how they will respond when she tells them, “I teach sixth and seventh grade.”
“I love middle school,” Stephens proclaimed. “it’s a great time in kids’ lives and I just love it.”
She continued, “One minute they are happy and excited and the next minute they’re crying and they have no idea why, but this is also the time where they start to understand who they want to be, how they want to get there and I just love that I’m able to help foster that in them and to help guide them to where they want to be and to help them be the person they want to become.”
And in case, anyone is still questioning her love of middle school, Stephens added one more, “I just love it.”
Her dedication — she’s been an educator for 16 years and spent the past 12 years at Thurman Francis Arts Academy — and unyielding passion have not gone unnoticed.
Stephens was recently selected as the Middle School Teacher of the Year by the Tennessee Council for Social Studies. She will be honored March 8 at the TCSS State Conference in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
Stephens will receive a complimentary TCSS membership, free registration to the conference and a check for $500.
“I am so excited for her,” said Barbara Powers, Middle School Coordinator for Rutherford County Schools. “She represents our district with such professionalism and class.”
Later this month, Stephens, who teaches sixth and seventh grade social studies, will also be recognized the Teacher of the Year at Thurman Francis.
Her daughter Sydney is a sixth-grader at Thurman Francis.
In addition to teaching, Stephens also serves as a leader for the middle school level curriculum team and leads the district-level sixth grade professional learning community.
Stephens has been part of the curriculum team for eight years.
“Rutherford County has done a great job of emphasizing the importance of social studies,” said Stephens, whose letters of recommendation for the TCSS honor were written by a parent of two former students, a fellow middle school teacher and Jeff McCann, the principal of Thurman Francis.
It is no surprise Stephens pursued a career in teaching.
She was born into a family of educators.
Her mother Linda Gaulden taught mostly fourth grade at Una Elementary School in the Metro Nashville School system for 30 years. Both grandmothers were educators — Jean Bradshaw worked at the central office for the Metro Nashville Board of Education, while Ruth Gaulden taught home economics at Antioch High — and her grandfather, Charles Gaulden, was a football coach at Antioch. He also served as principal of Tusculum Elementary School in Nashville.
“It’s in my blood,” Stephens said. “I’ve known forever that I wanted to be a teacher.”
She started playing school in second grade. She would bring home workbooks and pretend to teach her little sister, Lacey (Gaulden) Keller, while standing in front of a personal chalkboard.
Stephens discovered her passion for middle schools, while attending Middle Tennessee State University. She later earned a graduate degree from Cumberland University.
However, she has always had a love for “the history of things and people and events.”
“It just fascinates me,” Stephens said.
Stephens’ sixth grade social studies class studies early civilization from the stone age through early humans all the way to the fall of Rome, where seventh grade picks up and continues through the age of exploration when people came to America.
“I try to get them to realize how life actually was then,” said Stephens, who added, “I love them to just embrace it and to be curious about something … new that they’ve never learned before.”
She accomplished this through hands-on activities.
Storytelling lessons include students creating their own comic books instead of just answering questions after reading through the section, where they focus on storytelling instead of memorizing dates, names and places.
“You have to make it exciting,” Stephens said. “Otherwise the students aren’t going to care and they’re not going to want to learn.”