Stephanie Nielsen, a kindergarten teacher at Shawmut Hills, has been named one of 10 Regional Teachers of the Year and now is a finalist for the Michigan Teacher of the Year award.
The Michigan Department of Education organizes the Teacher of the Year program to honor and elevate teacher voice.
“The Regional Teachers of the Year play key roles in their schools and communities and in our statewide effort to continue improving our schools,” said State Superintendent Dr. Michael Rice.
Nielsen, the winner for Region 3, made up of 13 counties, said she was excited when she got the good news, not just for herself but also for her fellow teachers at Shawmut Hills and for all of the hardworking teachers and staff throughout GRPS.
“I believe it’s so important for educators to have a place at the table where decisions are being made for our scholars and schools,” she said. “I’m humbled and grateful to be a voice for our community.”
Nielsen added that she was with her daughter when she got the news about the award which made it even more gratifying.
“Throughout most of my journey as a teacher with GRPS, I have also navigated single parenthood, so sharing this excitement with her, after so many years of dedication and hard work, was very special,” she said. “I want her to see the value in pursuing your passions and what’s important to you.”
A Scottville, Mich., native, and Mason County Central High School graduate, Nielsen earned an associate degree in early childhood education from West Shore Community College before moving to Grand Rapids in 2008 to study at Grand Rapids Community College and Ferris State University’s downtown campus, earning her bachelor’s degree in elementary education in 2010. She also earned her master’s in education from Grand Valley in 2018.
She has been teaching for 16 years, including 12 years with GRPS and eight years at Shawmut Hills, following a passion that she said began already at a young age.
“In middle and high school, I was highly involved in student council, which gave me the opportunity to plan events and support my school community, which I quickly fell in love with,” she said. “Later on, it was following my interest in child development and my desire to make a positive impact on the lives of others that led me to teaching.”
She also looks back fondly at people who made a big impact on her life, and she hopes to do the same for those who cross her path.
“I have had some amazing teachers throughout my education,” she said. “Many teachers made a positive influence by just being authentic and sharing their personal hobbies and passions. Many also showed a genuine interest in my overall education and well-being, and that wasn’t just the teachers. It was the food service staff, the support staff, the coaches and the many others who showed up for me each day.”
Now she shows up daily for her Shawmut Hills kindergarten students.
“Every day I get to create joyful, memorable, hands-on experiences with kids, which for me is exciting,” she said. “It’s also rewarding to know that in kindergarten we are laying that solid foundation for our scholars' future success.”
Still, some days are easier than others she said with a laugh.
“It’s not all rainbows and sunshine in kindergarten,” she said. “There are a lot of challenges at this age level too, but I just try to be the teacher I would want my child to have as their first school experience, and it’s a great reminder to be patient, calm and supportive.”
And, she added, being in GRPS means being part of a community she has come to love.
“From the teachers, the administrators, the scholars, the support staff, and families, GRPS is full of talented, passionate, diverse people. GRPS has the absolute best educators and support staff, and I’ve been fortunate to learn from very talented administrators who have also given me freedom and flexibility to try new things and pitch big ideas.”
As a Regional Teacher of the Year, Nielsen now will be able to pitch big ideas on a bigger stage. Her title gives her a seat for 2023-24 on the Michigan Teacher Leadership Advisory Council, and its mission is to bring teacher voice to a wider audience, including direct work with MDE to provide input on proposed policies and initiatives.
Each Regional Teacher of the Year was interviewed this week with a panel of statewide education stakeholders and one individual next will be selected as the 2023-24 Michigan Teacher of the Year.
That Teacher of the Year honoree will have a seat at the State Board of Education table as a non-voting member, attend several national conferences with fellow state teachers of the year from other U.S. states and territories and will be Michigan’s candidate for National Teacher of the Year.