The moment Heather Stephens saw the large gold-and-white sign drapedacross a hallway at Freetown Elementary, "Welcome to Freetown, Together We Make a Difference," she knew where she wanted to begin her teaching career.
"I was so impressed that there were so many things recognizing student achievement," Stephens said. "I was amazed that students were allowed to give a birthday message to the principal on a large board in the hallway. In a lot of schools, that would have beenunheard of.
"The students must be happy here, and the principal has to be confident about her leadership."
Even before her interview began, the22-year-old said she was impressed by the school's warmth and emphasis on student recognition. Now that she will be teaching in the fifthgrade there, she hopes to share that warmth with the 28 students whowill be waiting for her on the first day of school Tuesday.
"I'vehad a lot of experience in elementary schools, but I've never had that first day of school experience," Stephens said. "I'm prepared, butI keep thinking about what I do that first time they walk through the door.
"The teachers and principal have been really helpful. I'm more excited than nervous."
A student at the University of Maryland at College Park, two of her four years included weekly experience with elementary students. She may be new to full-time teaching, but she is no stranger to county school policies.
The 1987 Broadneck graduate served as student member of the Board of Education during the 1986-1987 school year.
"It gave me quite a bit of insight," she said. "The frustration was knowing the needs and not having enough money. That also gives me some insight into how things work from a teacher's perspective."
The decision to teach came after conducting student workshops in parliamentary procedures and leadership skills as a county student government representative.
"Some of the workshops were for middle school students," she said. "It was a good feeling, seeing them walk out with information that I know they didn't have when they came in. It's that light bulb going off that makes it worth it. It makes you feel really good. That's the reward.
A career as an oceanographer held her interest for a while, and she even took coursesin environmental science.
She said that information should come in handy, especially when her students begin studying recycling issues.
Sitting in her classroom, surrounded by colorful construction paper to be used for decoration, Stephens recalled her days as a fifth-grader.
"I remember being so anxious to do the work that I wouldn't read the directions clearly," she said. "My teacher helped me to bemore careful. I want to help them to be prepared for middle school so that it won't be a culture shock."
She hopes to help ease their transition into middle school by offering organization techniques anddiscussing middle school procedures.
Even before other teachers returned from summer vacation for
staff meetings this week, Stephens was busy decorating her classroom with a large yellow-and-red welcome sign.
Another poster, featuring the cartoon characters Calvin and Hobbes, was crafted to encourage reading when work is done. Another board features small sailboats bearing each student's name under the heading, "Sail into a good year."
With a wide smile, she looks around the half-completed room, trying to anticipate what could be missing.
"I want the class to look warm and welcoming," Stephens said. "I don't want bare walls."
Just then, Principal Charlene Pryseski stopped by to see how her new hire was faring. Stephens is one of three new teachers hired at the school.
"I hired her because she isvery energetic and knowledgeable in the area of thinking skills," Pryseski said. "That will be one of our areas of focus for next year.
"My advice to any new teacher is to always do your best for kids. That takes care of everything else."