AAPS Exceptional Teacher: Katie Stepnitz, Lawton kindergarten teacher

By Jo Mathis/AAPS District News Editor

Katie Stepnitz was born and raised in Ann Arbor. Her father, Eric Stepnitz, did and continues to work in the corrugated and packaging business. Her mother, Jane Stepnitz, was an avid volunteer for the Ann Arbor Public Schools. Stepnitz and her sister, Abbey, attended Bryant, Pattengill, Tappan, and Pioneer.

She then continued her education at The University of Michigan where she received her bachelor’s degree in education. Stepnitz student taught at Eberwhite Elementary, where she says she feels honored to have been mentored by influential educators Olida Harris and Shelley Bruder. Stepnitz has been teaching in the Ann Arbor Public Schools for five years, all of which have been at Lawton where her love for teaching kindergarten began.

While she thought she would live in Ann Arbor for many years to come, meeting her fiance, Luke, changed that plan. Stepnitz now lives in the small Lenawee County village of Clayton with Luke, who runs his family’s dairy farm. While she never thought she would live on a farm, Stepnitz says there truly is something special about living out in the country. At the same time, she says Ann Arbor will always have a very special place in her heart.

What will you remember most about the school year 2020-21?

What a strange year it was! I think what I will remember most is how close I felt to this particular class. While we were not together in person for very long, I realized I connected with these students in a different way than I had with previous classes; due to being virtual, we were in each other’s homes every day. I saw every single toy, pet, sibling, you name it! The 2020-21 school year created a very unique bond.

How is this year going so far?

I am just beyond thrilled to be in the classroom with my students! It has been wonderful pulling out my September bin of lessons and activities to teach in person. My motto this year is: go slow to go fast. Many students have not been in a school setting for almost two years. Several of my kindergarten students were only three years old when the pandemic began. We need to ease back into our school routines and have the patience to set our students up for success.

When you recall your first year of teaching, what memories stand out?

Your first year of teaching is overwhelming. You have a classroom to set up and fill with materials, curriculum to learn, staff to meet, and a group of students to develop relationships with. I remember how grateful I was to have my family with me to help set up my classroom. I was constantly stopping by garage sales and reaching out to family and friends about collecting any books they no longer needed. I also remember the Lawton staff being so welcoming and helpful.

What advice would you give to a first-year teacher?

Be patient with yourself and keep your eyes and ears open. In my first year teaching, I was lucky enough to be teaching next to Jenny Szalay who had been teaching kindergarten for over 25 years. During my planning time, I would often keep the door that connected our rooms open. As I planned, I would listen to the way Jenny taught, making mental note of phrases she used. This was really helpful and I learned a lot from her.

What inspired you to become a teacher?

My love for school developed at an early age. I remember coming home from Bryant each day and making my younger sister play school with me. I would reteach everything I learned from the day. I credit my teachers for their enthusiasm for school and learning. I specifically remember my kindergarten teacher, Beth Harrington. I thought she was amazing! I recall loving everything about her, especially the perfume that she wore. She made me feel special at school, and not just when I was a student in her classroom. I aspire to have this impact on my students as well.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about teaching? About learning?

For teaching, I think we can be the best teachers when we collaborate. We work on a team and we can combine our expertise to create the best lessons for our students. As for learning, we can always continue to learn! Every year brings something new. I enjoy reflecting on lessons and thinking about how I can tweak them to make them stronger each time.

What was always written on your report card in grade school?

I was a student who wanted to please teachers. I was and still am a rule follower! Comments often reflected this stating I tried my best, was kind to others, and was sometimes a bit chatty.

Describe an average workday.

My workdays begin early as I enjoy a cup of coffee while getting ready in the morning. I then make my daily green smoothie and drive to work, listening to a podcast along the way. Once I arrive at school, I make sure I have everything ready for the day and/or get ahead on something else for the week. Once the children arrive, I help them get settled for the day; they participate in morning tub activities and eat breakfast. We then come together for morning meeting, have a movement break, a daily read-aloud, morning recess, and complete literacy activities that include reader’s workshop, writer’s workshop, and word study.

Before you know it, it’s time for lunch. When the children return from lunch, we have a daily afternoon meeting. We then transition into quiet time, complete math workshop, and engage in science or social studies lessons and activities. While my students are at their daily specials, I plan for upcoming lessons and activities or meet with my team. We wrap up our day with snack, recess, and closing circle. After I dismiss my students, I put the morning schedule up for the next day and usually stay after school for a bit before heading back home or to a workout class.

What’s the happiest part of your day?

There are so many happy parts of a day in a kindergarten classroom! I think my favorite would have to be the beginning of the day. There is something really special about greeting your students each morning. When the bell rings, I open the back door of my classroom and am greeted with smiles and hugs from 4, 5, and 6-year-olds. It is a precious moment to celebrate the beginning of a new day of learning and comfort any child who may need an extra hug that morning.

What song do you know all the lyrics to?

My favorite genre of music is country music. However, as a kindergarten teacher the song lyrics that I know best are songs like Days of the Week, Months of the Year, our lining up song, and carpet song. In kindergarten, we have a song for everything and those songs love to get stuck in your head!

Apps you can’t live without:

Google Drive is my best friend. Anything that assists with organization and collaboration is a winner in my book!

What makes teaching at Lawton unique?

Our staff is amazing. Lawton has a warm and fuzzy feeling and you will always find teachers connecting with one another. This past summer we had a devastating fire at my fiance’s dairy farm. Thankfully nobody was hurt. As soon as my Lawton colleagues heard the news they were reaching out asking how they could support us during that difficult time. The Lawton staff truly cares about one another and I value being part of a community like that.

How do you keep students engaged?

Teaching kindergarten-aged students makes this really interesting. They are such sponges! If you are excited then they will be excited. I really try to show my excitement and enthusiasm for every lesson I teach. Whether it be about shapes, numbers, or a new book, I strive to demonstrate how fun learning can be! We also take LOTS of movement breaks.

How do you show school spirit?

Ask my fiance, I talk about my students nonstop! If you have a friend or family member who is a teacher you will know we always have stories to tell. Stories that we often could not make up even if we tried. I love to share exciting moments about the day I had with my students. I am proud of them and want to share all of the amazing things they do!

What is the most rewarding part of teaching?

For me, the relationships I develop with my students are the most rewarding part of teaching. Kindergarten is a very unique opportunity where many of our children are experiencing school for the first time. We have this precious moment in time to really develop a love for learning. Yes, it is my job to teach children their letters, how to read, how to count, etc. However, I believe what must come first is for children to feel comfortable and cared for at school. Once this is established the other things seem to fall into place. A few years ago the families in my class had their children complete a worksheet for teacher appreciation week. One of the statements they completed was “you make me feel special when you.” One student wrote, “hug me at the end of the day.” It is my goal for every single student who enters my classroom to know that I care for them, I support them, and I am here to both celebrate the happy days and comfort and listen to them during the difficult days. I believe Rita Pierson says it best, “Every child deserves a champion: an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be.” I hope my students all know that I will forever be a champion for them.

What do you wish everyone realized about the work of a teacher?

I wish everyone knew it isn’t a job that ends at 4:00 when the students are dismissed for the day. Teachers are constantly planning and preparing for the next day. When we are not preparing for a lesson or activity we are thinking about our students. Teaching is a demanding job that requires educators to wear many hats. We wear these hats with pride and will continue to do whatever is best for our students.

How do you spend your summers?

I am a homebody and enjoy having a low-key summer. I am happy to have a relaxing day at home and not have to pack a lunch. I love the flexibility of being able to work out at any time of the day. I also enjoy spending a few days up north each summer as a little getaway.

What’s most exciting about your professional life right now? Your personal life?

Professionally, I would have to say it is working with my team. We truly have something special. We meet weekly and are constantly collaborating. I think the best part is that this is how we want to work. I do not think a single week goes by where one of us doesn’t text our group chat just to express how grateful we are for each other. It is our goal to have all four kindergarten classrooms engaging in the same lessons and activities each week. When our students are out on the playground together they can share about these experiences and connect with each other about their school day. I feel so lucky to be a part of this team and wish every grade level at every school would embrace teamwork the way we do! One other thing that is exciting for me professionally is that I moved rooms to be in my friend and former colleague, Jenny Szalay’s, old room. I miss teaching with her dearly and being in her old room is really special.

Personally, I am getting married next July! My fiance is from The Netherlands and has a lot of family that we have not been able to see for quite some time. The last time we were able to see his sister and two nephews was in January of 2020. Next summer will be a really special time to be together with family and friends as we celebrate our next chapter.