National honoree was destined to teach
Stephanie Sun traces her destiny to become a teacher to her childhood days of make-believe.
“When I was a child around age 10, I would ask my mom to buy fake chalkboard and faketeach my stuffed animals into a class for hours at my suburban New Jersey home, until dinner time,” Sun told China Daily. “It just feels like something I was born with, that I want to be in front of students and like the idea of being a teacher.”
Sun, 26, a fifth-grade English teacher at Achievement First Brownsville Middle School in Brooklyn, New York, was recently awarded the 2015 Fishman Prize for Superlative Classroom Practice, a national honor that recognizes teachers working in high-poverty schools.
She beat out nearly 800 other applicants from around the country to become one of only four honorees this year, and also the first Chinese-American honoree since the prize was launched in 2012.
“For myself, I am just happy that I am recognized for my work in one way, and I could have the opportunity to keep learning and growing because I want to be a teacher as long as I can,” she said. “And I know that being a great teacher needs decades and decades of work.”
Sun worked several nonpaying jobs, mostly as a volunteer and intern working with homeless teens and immigrant youngsters throughout her college life at New York University. One of them was with an organization called the Door, which focuses on homeless youths.
“Back then, I worked almost like an intake counselor, to meet teenagers on the streets who needed this type of service, for example, housing, health or legal service,” she said. “That was pretty much voluntary work and really intense for me as a sophomore, but it did expose me to a lot of issues like poverty in New York City.”
Her last part-time job while at NYU was a turning point in her realization that a disparity existed in New York between students who did not have opportunity and students with every opportunity.
At the private school where she taught Mandarin twice a week, the children were from wealthy families and paying $30,000 for preschool tuition and got to learn a second language at an early age.
“From there, I decided I want to not only teach but also work with students who were born in a ZIP code they did not choose,” she said. “And that’s why I joined Teach For America, the organization that placed me in New Haven, and where I taught for two years after graduating from NYU in 2010.”
The time in New Haven, Connecticut, was difficult, Sun recalled. She taught at an alternative school, where all the students were expelled or suspended from other New Haven public schools. Teach For America decided to create a school for them and give them a second chance.
“At that time, I did not know how to teach them, how to handle the social, emotional, and educational needs they had, and it was extremely difficult for me since I just graduated with basically zero teaching experience,” Sun said. “But I learned a lot in those two years. I really realized my own limitations, and knew that I was not a great teacher yet and had so much to learn.”
After New Haven, Sun decided to learn and develop somewhere else, so she returned to New York and joined the Brownsville school two years ago.
“When I had the interview at the Brownsville, I saw how wonderful the students were and how really they have focused on education,” she recalled. “And I told myself: This is the right school for me and where I want to work if I can contribute to that type of success.”
In the beginning, since Sun was a new face, there was a sense of wariness around her, like “Who is this person?” she said. Although 98 percent of her students are African American and the others Hispanic, many students did not see Sun as Asian or Chinese until her parents went to her school for the award.
“With a lack of understanding around different cultures and cultural diversity, they might feel confused about my identity a little bit,” she said. “I might be the very first Chinese that my students have ever interacted with or spoken to. I try to share my culture with them, what I do with my family and our food.
“I think eventually, though, once we developed a close relationship, and they saw how I cared, it was quite spontaneous that they knew I was the kind of nurturing teacher and later gave each other nicknames, like Miss Sunshine for me,” she giggled. “Developing a close family relationship and mentoring students could help them build trust in you, and open up to you and accept what you were trying to teach them.”
With experienced teachers as mentors who gave feedback each week after observing how the new teacher worked, Sun and her students made significant progress and grew together. Her students outperformed their peers in their district and achieved nearly four times the proficiency rate of other fifth-grade English students from the same neighborhoods in Brooklyn.
When asked about the secrets to making it happen, Sun said the first thing is high expectations, believing that fifth graders could write essays on complex topics.
“Even though we prepare college-ready materials for our students, I know that if my students feel supported and cared for, they can accomplish any task in front of them,” she said. “I am impressed by what my students could produce, especially in the writing aspect, and how much they are able to grow and how thirsty they are for knowledge.”
Another secret to Sun’s success is her personality: always happy, positive and rigorous, which is why her colleagues and students affectionately call her “Miss Sunshine” or “Miss Sunny”.
“I am a very positive and happy person, which is also why I love working with kids,” she said. “The more exposure I have to different types of kids and different programs, the more I know I am the happiest with children.”
Sun believes that if you create a positive environment in which students have nicknames and know you, they will feel you support them. “I think that makes a huge difference in the classroom,” she said. “It provides kids an environment where they want to learn, they (my students) are jumping out of their seat to learn because it is fun and challenging.”
Despite the fact that a lot of teachers, herself included, may feel burned out sometimes — like the two years she was with Teach For America when she saw many teachers come and go — Sun refuses to give in to fatigue and frustration, driven by what she calls “the combination of passion and indignation”.
“The more I learn about gap and difference in opportunities in America, I got so upset that students were given different life opportunities because of their race or ZIP code,” said Sun. “This (being a teacher) is the work I want to do to make a difference, because sitting back and doing nothing was not an option.
“I think at the end of the day education will be the answer to solving poverty,” she said. “I believe the more energy and focus we put on closing the education gap, the more likely we are going to change the world and make a difference.”
Stephanie Sun, a fifth-grade English teacher in Brownsville, Brooklyn, New York, works with one of her pupils. Sun won a national award this year for “superlative classroom practice.”