This week’s feature is Stephanie Merris. Stephanie Merris is a first grade teacher at Sunset View. She is in her eighth year of teaching. She got into teaching because of the example of her mother. Here is what Stephanie wrote about her reason for teaching:

Why I Teach

by Stephanie Merris

As a little girl, I spent the bulk of my days teaching. My younger siblings, stuffed animals, and dolls were my students in that time frame, and even then, I distinctly remember the immense happiness I felt in those teaching moments. I was helping other people and that desire to continue making a difference in the lives of others has remained with me to this very day.

I grew up in a home with a phenomenal mother, who ran a preschool daycare in it. The experiences I had growing up in this environment played a pivotal role in my decision to pursue education. It was in my home that I interacted with children on a daily basis and learned to love being around them. By watching my mother’s innate ability to teach them and care for them, I learned firsthand, how to: relate to them, help them laugh and have fun, and most importantly, help them to feel safe and loved.

At the core of who I am, there are three main reasons I went into teaching and why I continue to educate first graders to this day. First, I firmly believe that students “do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.” I know that teaching a rich, rigorous curriculum is crucial to children’s success in this world, yet long before students retain a mathematical concept or literary takeaway from a lesson, their most basic needs in life must be met. Students must first, feel safe before they can thrive in the classroom and enrich their minds with new understanding. Once they know they are valued and special, anything is possible. Kylene Beers explicates this notion saying, “…you will find that [each student]… wonders, ‘Will my teacher like me?’ And when that child…knows that you believe he or she matters, then that student will do almost anything for you.” (Essay continued below video.)

I have taught in a Title I school in my career to date and the knowledge that some of my students may come from homes, where love may be lacking or even absent in them, gives me the drive to guarantee that every student that enters my classroom leaves it feeling loved and important. I strive to show my students they are cared for in many ways. I make a concerted effort to get to know each of them on an individual level and learn their interests/hobbies. I play with them at recess and try hard to access their great imaginations, making even the simplest activities feel exciting to them! I greet them with a smile each day and similarly, end the day with some sort of “ticket out the door” in order to help them feel connected to me before leaving. I eat lunch with a group of them every week, which is one of my absolute favorite ways to form a great bond with them. Each day, I am their biggest advocate and cheerleader, encouraging them to develop “growth mindsets,” in which mistakes are not viewed as setbacks, but as opportunities to improve and “get back up again,” as Poppy so wisely states in the “Trolls” movie. The smiles and immense pride I see beaming from my students’ faces when I lead the class in doing special cheers for them after they succeed in a task or persist in solving a hard problem, brings a joy to my soul that is indescribable. I show my students I care by being their nurse when they’re hurt, their counselor when they need to work out a conflict with their peer(s), and even by being their “stand-in” parent when they feel upset or miss their family at home. Truly, as a teacher, I wear many different “hats” each day. I enjoy wearing them because doing so means I am helping my sweet students to: develop confidence, become determined to tackle any hard task thrown their way, and feel relaxed and secure.

A second reason I teach is because I wholeheartedly believe in making humor and excitement an integral part of children’s lives. Milton Berle once wisely stated, “Laughter is an instant vacation.” This statement could not be truer! Some of my students’ home lives are not always the most ideal and I believe in giving them temporary relief from their situations by making them laugh and enjoy learning everyday. I do this by talking with different accents during lessons, varying them just enough so my students never quite know what to expect. My classroom is my stage and my students are an audience I aim to please! I wear different costumes or use props to pretend to be someone else during my instruction, which different personas help to increase student engagement. I frequently make a fool of myself so that my students can see life does not need to be taken too seriously. They learn that if they do something embarrassing or make a mistake, they are not the first one to do it, as their teacher has done it many times before them. More than that, they can see that their teacher has taken opportunities to laugh at herself and find humor in situations in the process.

I cannot stress enough how much this kind of approach aids even the most shy and introverted students to “put themselves out there” at school and in life, in general. In my teaching, humor and laughter has been the recipe for creating the most safe, comfortable, friendly environment in which students flourish. When human beings laugh together, even while learning important concepts, they have memorable experiences to last a lifetime. I know my students will not remember what they learned with me in years to come, but they will remember how they felt in my presence. It is my hope that the incorporation of humor into my daily instruction will help positive feelings to flood my sweet students’ minds. Truly, there is no better sound in my classroom than hearing the most adorable giggles come out of my first graders’ mouths after I do or say something funny while we’re learning together. Perhaps Charlie Chaplin sums up my feelings best when he says, “A day without laughter is a day wasted.”

The final reason I teach is because I have an immense desire to change the world, one act of selflessness and service at a time. I love the quote, “Throw kindness around like confetti” and I make every effort possible to make this mantra permeate my classroom and school each and every day. In my Disney “Frozen”-themed classroom, I teach the students to be “Snowflake Friends,” who exemplify great manners, help often, without being asked and without the expectation of something in return, and most importantly, who seek out students who may be alone or sad by extending the arm of friendship to them. I have kindness charts in my class with 100 hearts on each of them, which hearts get colored in each time a student does something nice for our classroom or any person in the school. These acts of kindness are recognized daily and reinforced often.

I lead by example, in order to help my students to learn to “look outside themselves” and become more caring, thoughtful individuals. My heart feels elated when my first graders come inside from recess telling me, “I played with ____ at recess when they were all alone” or “I helped _____ to feel happy when they were sad.” My smile gets bigger and brighter when I see my students clean up a mess they didn’t make or patiently help one of their peers to complete a task that they may lack the confidence needed to accomplish. When my students use uplifting words, cheering on their fellow classmates when they earn points or rewards, I could not be prouder. One of the neatest things I have ever witnessed in my teaching took place this school year when 2nd graders, who were formerly my students last year, found out my birthday was coming and planned a surprise birthday party for me on the morning of my birthday. These students were incredibly thoughtful, making banners and decorations to set up in my classroom when I wasn’t there. They even brought cupcakes, party hats, and presents, surprising me when I entered the room. Their excitement and genuine love for me deeply touched my heart and helped me to feel like perhaps, I did something right in teaching them to serve and love others. It was an amazing feeling to have some of the kindness I’ve tried to impart to my students, be directed at me. Truly, I will never forget that event as long as I live, as it left a permanent imprint on my heart.

Being kind does not take much effort, yet it yields amazing results. The happy feeling it can fill in students’ hearts is one I strive to make an integral part of my daily teaching. The following quote depicts the power that lies in helping others: “The beauty of life does not depend on how happy you are, but how happy others can be because of you.” I am so grateful to be a teacher. Though trying and difficult, though demanding and at times, undervalued, I would not trade this job for anything else in the world. I have the amazing opportunity to help students to feel special, make them laugh and enjoy learning, and instill a desire in them to generously serve others in the world around them. Winston Churchill said, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” I am honored and privileged to give my heart and soul to the cause of helping children in this world. They are our future and I take the role of teaching them academics and life skills very seriously.

If you know a teacher you would like to see featured, please email Shauna Sprunger at shaunas@provo.edu.  You can follow along on the district’s and schools’ social media feeds by searching for the hashtag #WhyITeachProvo.