Reflections from Stephanie Bellino: "I have grown in ways I never thought possible"

The 2018 Florida Blue Duval County Teacher of the Year shares her reflections on what she learned.

4/19/2019

How has your career evolved since you were named 2018 Florida Blue Duval County Teacher of the Year?

Since I was named the Duval County Teacher of the Year, I (as well as my career) have grown in ways I never thought possible. During my tenure, I grew as a teacher, a leader and a community member. I learned new strategies and tools to reach a broader audience of students. I gained the content expertise and confidence to present at conferences in Jacksonville and Orlando. I learned of the support and eagerness of the community and how to rally that support for the sake of our students. I learned about the common passion that individuals of all walks of life here in Jacksonville have and the common factor being the desire for a better tomorrow for our children. All of the experiences I had this year, shaped my new vision of how I can contribute to education and provided me the passion needed to drive that vision. Last year, I was a classroom teacher wondering if I’m really making a difference. A year later, I sit writing this and I know I made a difference to my students, my community and education as a whole in Florida. I don’t know where this new vision may take me, but I can say for certain that it is fueled by every experience and learning opportunity I had this past year as Duval County Teacher of the Year.

At JPEF, and in the larger education community, we talk a lot about the need for a career path for teachers, so they can continue to advance in their careers without leaving the classroom or the profession. Have you experienced a career path, or a lack of one?

When I entered the classroom in 2015, I knew that was where I belonged. As I grew as an educator and I experienced teaching consecutive grade levels and acquiring the unique set of skills that comes with that experience, my passion slowly shifted into teacher leadership. The problem with that is that it’s very difficult for teachers to lead when they have 67 students they’re teaching and responsible for every day. That passion for teacher leadership lead me into the role I am in this year, which is a Reading Coach. This is where I think the career path becomes almost an all-or-nothing choice. You either stay in the classroom, or leave altogether and take on a leadership role such as instructional coach. This year we have found unique ways for me to stay in front of kids, but I think we as a school community can find more creative ways to empower teachers to lead without requiring them to leave the classroom altogether. For instance, a hybrid role of teacher and instructional coach would not only combine my two passions, but continue to build my credibility as an instructional coach. By committing to finding a career path that meshes these two roles, I think we will not only empower teachers to be leaders, but cultivate a new type of leader that will be attractive to new teachers or teachers who are thinking of leaving the profession for lack of advancement. 

What was the most memorable moment of your year?

Over the course of my year as Teacher of the Year, I had so many amazing moments that come to mind! There are two things that stand out the most. The first was having the opportunity to attend the National Network of State Teachers of the Year conference in Las Vegas. I was able to learn from renowned educators from all over the world and to do so with the other four finalists. Not only was the learning incredible and world class, but I built forever friendships with the finalists (Abe, Alisha, Tabetha, and Will) and Zak Champagne. An equally -- if not more -- memorable moment was my first speaking engagement at the Deerwood Rotary to thank them for their gracious and ongoing support of the EDDY Awards. It happened to be where I met my now fiancé, Daniel!

What opportunities were you afforded by JPEF during your time as Teacher of the Year?

JPEF truly opened up not only my world, but that of my students as well. Through JPEF I had the chance to meet individuals all across the Jacksonville community, who each wanted to play a special role in not only my life, but the lives of my students. Because of the generosity of JPEF and the individuals who contribute to JPEF, I was able to attend conferences, take part in various events, and even was supported to begin presenting at conferences. JPEF not only afforded me opportunities, but helped me grow into a leader and gave me the confidence through ongoing support and guidance. What I hold closest to my heart, was the opportunities that JPEF provided to my students. One of the most special moments was when I took one of my students to the Bank of America building so that he could meet Coley Jones, a member of the JPEF Board. Coley saw himself in the little boy that sat in my fifth grade class and insisted that they meet. My student had never been to the BOA Tower, let alone in an office that belonged to such an influential, dedicated individual. That day, Coley sat with my student talking about life, dreams, and the power of staying on the right path. Because of this connection with JPEF, the life of my student is forever changed and I will always be grateful for that.

Why do you think it’s important to elevate the Duval County Teacher of the Year?

It’s important to elevate the Duval County Teacher of the Year because teachers are a vital part of our community, but often don’t believe that themselves. Teachers are on the front lines every day molding the minds of the thousands of students in Duval County, yet are often overlooked as a “respected profession.” And, that’s where I believe the teacher recruitment and retention problem comes in. By elevating the work of the not only the Duval County Teacher of the Year, but the work of the finalists, semi-finalists and school-based teachers of the year, you are empowering and appreciating the work that all teachers do. Throughout this year and the many teachers I had the opportunity to meet, I learned that teachers don’t enter the classroom for the praise and recognition, but I’ve found what keeps them there is the praise and recognition. The recognition, praise and appreciation that I have experienced this year has confirmed what I often doubted, that I am making a difference and I matter to this community. Every person I know yearns to find their purpose in this world, and through this year of learning and growing, I was able to find (and maybe find twice over) my purpose. 

What role has your principal played in supporting you as a teacher and as Teacher of the Year? 

My principal, Mychelle Grover, is a powerful force. That force played the biggest role in achieving this milestone accomplishment so early in my career. Ms. Grover always believed in me and saw potential in me from the first time we met. She continuously pushes me to be better and to seek out opportunities that not only advances my content knowledge and leadership skills, but encourages me to be better and do better. Watching Ms. Grover lead has been an incredible experience. She has modeled what authentic, quality leadership looks like and with grace and determination reached a broken school community and then turned that broken school community around into a positive, cohesive community. Her guidance, support and unwavering belief in my potential is something that I will never forget and always be grateful for.

What words of advice would you share with Sarah Pasion as she begins her tenure as 2019 Duval County Teacher of the Year?

The advice I would give Sarah is to always be open and to push herself outside of her comfort zone! When I was first named Teacher of the Year, I found it uncomfortable to be in front of groups of people and crowds where I felt like I didn’t belong. I was a teacher who stood in front of 67 kids every day, and all of a sudden I found myself at events in front of 20 adults and I didn’t know what to do. I made a vow that I would work on becoming confident and learn from each experience, and to not decline for the reason that I would be awkward and uncomfortable. In the beginning, I would give myself a pep talk and say “OK, You are going to be around people you do not know (who are certainly not 9 year olds), but do not be awkward. You got this.” I also promised to learn something from each event or function I attended. Over a year later, I’m proud of the progress I made and the confidence I’ve gained being in front of groups of people! And those pep talks, they are few and far between! As teachers, we instill an “I can” and “I will” mindset, and every once in a while the teacher needs to take the teacher's advice.

 

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