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Great Georgia Teachers: Stephanie Fuerte of Muscogee offers tough love, ground rules and great results



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Here is another entry in University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinsky's ongoing Great Georgia Teacher series.

By Peter Smagorinsky

Welcome to Mrs. Fuerte's 8th grade ELA class!

Parents,

I have welcomed one of your most prized possessions into my room and I would like to welcome you as well. I have been a teacher for 24 years and hold all my degrees in English. I absolutely love my job and take it seriously—even though we have fun in class. I consider my room my mission field. I am here for you and your student and will do all I can to help him in his educational career. I strongly believe it takes the student, teacher, and parent working together as a team to be successful. I hope I have the same support from you at home.

 Students,

I want you to be excited about coming to school—especially my ELA class! Please make sure you talk to me if you have any questions or concerns and that you keep current on all of your work. We will grow as a family and that means I will show you "tough love" and hold you accountable for your work and behavior. You will appreciate it, trust me. Let's have a great year!

Mrs. Fuerte

Stephanie Fuerte greets students and parents each year with this warm, yet firm welcome. Her excitement for her work seems to have grown greater over the course of her two-and-a-half decades in Muscogee County. This contagious drive and passion provide kids with the challenges and motivation that they need to attain their social and academic goals.

 Welcome, then, to the world of Stephanie Fuerte: STAR Teacher, Columbus State University Alumni Teacher of the Year for Muscogee County, Muscogee County School District Teacher of the Year Finalist, and Georgia teacher extraordinaire. Stephanie began teaching in Muscogee County at her alma mater, William H. Shaw High School in Columbus, then transferred to the newly constructed Aaron Cohn Middle School in Midland.

Stephanie assumes that young people appreciate the opportunity to work hard when presented with challenges and provided with guidance. David Reynolds of PAGE has observed her classroom, noting, “Stephanie focuses on developing and maintaining solid relationships with her students. Her classroom is filled with examples of student work, and there is a comfortable feel to the place. The qualities she exemplifies are mirrored quite well by her students. That is, her students treat one another with kindness, conduct themselves in a respectful manner, and do their best work.”

 Stephanie’s teaching is well-illustrated by her website.  All of her expectations for classroom conduct are spelled out, and students must sign and turn in a document in which they confirm that they agree to abide by her policies. From the outset, then, she establishes the ground rules for participation in her class.

Another feature of her teaching is her establishment of clear routines. A routine in this sense is not an endlessly repeated task that leads to dull predictability. Rather, in Stephanie’s sense, routines allow students to anticipate the cycle of practices that, over time, allow them to work confidently without having to adjust to changing rules and requirements.

Stephanie adheres to the requirements she must meet from outside, such as covering the material that will be assessed on course-end tests. Rather than having those mandates dictate her every move, however, she interprets those requirements and invests her class with her own unique touch.

She makes it clear, for instance, that “Students will need to pass the 8th grade writing test soon after the second semester begins.” Students learn grammar primarily from how they formulate their own writing, but also learn what they’ll need to know to do well on the Common Core Georgia Performance Standards.

Part of her high standing as school citizen comes from her commitment to improving the institution. Her former superintendent, Dr. Jim Arnold, wrote of his “frequent memory of Stephanie coming into my office, closing the door and saying, ‘You might not want to hear what I have to tell you, but........’  What she had to say was always constructive and important if not necessarily good news.  She did not hesitate to tell me when I made a mistake, and I depended upon her and several others to help me make decisions that benefited students.  She is indeed a jewel.”

This leadership role was critical when, at its inception, Aaron Cohn Middle School had to meld 57 faculty members from different backgrounds quickly into a cohesive group. Principal Richard Green required, as he said, “leaders within the departments who can reach peers on an emotional level to help support the person and the overall mission and vision of the team.” Green had known Stephanie from his previous term at Shaw High and knew the respect she had earned. He understood her as one who would “willingly step out of her comfort zone” for a “new and different challenge” along with “the opportunity to shape not only students but other teachers and parents.” 

 In this role, wrote Principal Green, Stephanie helped to cultivate a new environment where students may “learn, interact, and collaborate with a teacher who engages them at the highest levels. Stephanie is a public education champion. The quality of service she provides every day is what makes public education a beautiful thing.  Each opportunity she has with her stakeholders provides them with not only a greater knowledge of Language Arts, but an appreciation for learning and a desire to be better people in whatever walk of life they choose.  Stephanie Fuerte represents all that is right about public education.”

 Stephanie’s colleague Dr. Pamela Anders worked alongside her for many years at Shaw High School. As a faculty member, says Pam, Stephanie’s “involvement and leadership were invaluable. She took her leadership role seriously. The decisions she made as a teacher leader were still student-centered. She put students first with every aspect of her position. For example, when preparing the ELA master schedule, she would think about a student’s entire high school experience — who was best teaching Composition, what teachers were better at teaching writing, and how a student would progress through each class.”

 One question that appears on every recommendation form I fill out for school districts asks, “Would you want this person to teach your own children?” Let’s let Pam Anders answer that one:

 “My daughter was lucky enough to have Stephanie as a teacher. Stephanie encouraged her to write and use her imagination, all while covering the standards that were required. My daughter thrived in her class. Her writing improved, and she grew as a student. My daughter has never liked school. She makes good grades, but she does not conform to fashion or trends — some students see her as an outcast. Somewhere in the semester, I realized that my daughter did not hate school quite so much. Much of this change was due to Stephanie. She allowed Anna to be herself, and encouraged her to like herself. Not only did she teach my daughter English/Language Arts standards, she helped with her self-esteem and self-motivation.”

Would I want my kids in Stephanie’s class? You bet. Stephanie, says Pam, “is a teacher who loves her school. She is willing to do anything — work extra hours, dress in crazy costumes, attend extra-curricular activities —anything to help morale and student achievement.” She’s the kind of great teacher we are fortunate to have in Georgia, one who helps kids find who they are in the teeming world of adolescence and amidst the demands of learning in school.

 I suspect that Pam Anders is one of many parents in Muscogee County who find Stephanie to be a precious part of their kids’ experiences and an indispensable cornerstone of their community. I also suspect that in this era in which public schools are being crushed by policymakers and their data-driven assessments, teachers like Stephanie Fuerte are undervalued in evaluations that do not take into account the myriad of contributions that they make to schools, faculties, kids, and communities.