Affectionately nicknamed “Ms. Sunshine” by her students, 2015 Fishman Prize winner Stephanie Sun brings joy and a sharp sense of focus to her fifth-grade English classroom at Achievement First Brownsville Middle School, in Brooklyn, NY. She also holds her students to high expectations. On the new, Common Core-aligned 2014 state exam, Stephanie’s students achieved nearly four times the proficiency rate in English language arts of other fifth-grade students from the same neighborhoods in Brooklyn.
Let’s just start off broad. Tell me about yourself.
I love teaching, and I especially enjoy working with younger students because I can relate to some of the qualities present at that stage in their development—for example, their eagerness and optimism. I think that’s why I chose a profession that allows me to be around kids all the time. Everything they say and do is so refreshing. In a world that can sometimes feel dismal, seeing a child get excited about something recalibrates you to appreciate the little things in life.
Did you always know teaching was for you?
Yes, right away. When I was 10, I asked my mother to go to Staples and get a chalkboard for me. I would teach for hours to the stuffed animals in my room, it became my after school routine. There was something about the idea of teaching that was innate for me. I recently scrounged up old notebooks where I had made English “assignments” for my 94-year-old, Chinese-only-speaking grandmother—I’m talking worksheets, tests, and even oral quizzes!
In the five years you’ve been in the classroom, who’s your all-time favorite student?
Jeremiah. I taught him during my first two years with Teach for America in New Haven, CT and I still take him to get ice cream when I’m up there. He’s a giant now, with a low voice, but when I taught him, he was so small he could hide under a desk—and he often did.
Everyone said there were so many things “wrong” with Jeremiah, but I learned to dig deeper to find what was underneath all that complexity. By driving him to and from school, I learned about his family and how much pressure he put on himself to be the role model for his younger siblings. When he would throw violent tantrums at school, I realized it was not because he was angry with us, but because he was disappointed in a low grade. After-school trips to the public library showed me that he wasn’t unwilling to learn to read better, he just didn’t have the right books. The extra time I spent with him showed me how complicated teaching in underserved communities is and how large an impact a teacher can have, as long as they’re willing to really get to know their kids. I think about Jeremiah all the time and try to encourage my colleagues to also dig deeper with their Jeremiahs. He taught me a lot and I strive to do right by him and other kids like him.
How would Jeremiah and the rest of your students describe you?
I took a career aptitude test one time and my top two results were clown and coach. I think my kids would definitely say I’m a combination of both. Another thing I’ve been called is “mom.” Jeremiah always called me his mother because he knew I would tell him right versus wrong and keep him on course. I bet he and others would say, “She expects the most out of me but is also there when I need a hug.”
What’s something you do in your classroom now that is different from when you started?
One thing that has changed is my ability to handle the volatility of teaching. In the moment, you’re responding to academic and emotional data in your classroom. I used to take things so personally, but through experience, I’ve learned that anything can happen and you need to have a neutrality to handle it.
The second thing is rigor. When I visited Collegiate School on the Upper West Side this past fall—an all-boys private school—I saw middle school students creating their own podcasts on a class set of iPads. I was impressed but at the same time, felt indignant. I knew it wasn’t fair that some of my students had never even used a computer before. So I decided to revamp my research unit. Instead of recycling lessons I’d been comfortable with, I decided to abandon all paper classwork and make everything digital. I was scared at first, but I knew it was important and worth the risk. The project ended up being my most memorable unit of the year: students learned how to keep track of their own digital notes, were able to manage their own research of multiple online sources, and of course, realize copy and paste is literal magic.
My principal told me after a quick observation that my class felt like a private school classroom to him and that comment has always stuck with me. I have seen what kids can do, I’ve seen what success looks like and I’m ready to take risks in my own classroom.
What keeps you going day in and day out? What’s your motivation or inspiration that you tap into when you need a little push?
What I’m trying to do in my classroom is motivated and inspired by my parents. I just want to make them proud and make their sacrifices worthwhile. My parents didn’t really understand why I chose teaching as a career path. They were unsure of my placement school with Teach for America, constantly worried about my safety, and perplexed as to why I wanted to go into a career that doesn’t pay much and has such long hours. They emigrated from Taiwan and provided me with every opportunity in the world. I just want to honor that.
I know your parents were there when you received the Fishman Prize. Who else was alongside you when you celebrated?
Well, I was actually a little peeved that there was a schedule change that I was unaware about the day of the announcement. I was eager to grade some reading journals and was confused why the day was being interrupted. Then, I saw Dan Weisberg come through the door and I kind of said “NO…” quietly to myself. Then I saw my mom and my dad with tears in their eyes and flowers in their hands and yelled “NO…” a little bit louder. Then I saw my brother with his camera and goofy smile and my boyfriend, Brian, crying. I then yelled “No, no, no!” and started jumping up and down. I couldn’t believe it and was sure I was having a dream.
I think that anyone who’s taught alongside you can definitely believe it. How is the residency part of the Fishman experience going so far?
I would describe it like this: I feel like I’ve been invited to a “big sister’s” party. Like I’m a younger sibling that’s been given special access to an exclusive event. Everyone I’ve met has been so smart and inspiring, and I just can’t believe I’m here. The first few days were really informative, and I’ve learned a ton of stuff that I’ve never had the time to read or think about in my career while I’ve been teaching. At dinner with friends, I’m always the one pontificating about race and education, and people are like, “Okay, we get it.” But at the residency, everyone else agrees there’s nothing else as important to talk about! I’ve already taken pages of notes on all the brilliant things Erin, Zeke, and Erica have shared and can’t wait to try some of what I’ve learned in my classroom this year.
That sounds awesome. So, what does the future hold? Where do you see yourself five years from now?
Teaching at my school or maybe returning to New Haven Public Schools where I got my start. I’d like to eventually do something that will have an impact on more students than just my own. But as long as I can, I want to be in the classroom—I can’t imagine myself not teaching. However, I also know I want to make real change at the public school district level, so we’ll see.