Throughout the year, we’ll be profiling Heroes in the Classroom, our nod to the teachers doing tremendously hard work, day in and day out. They don’t get enough praise for the heart and soul they put into their kids’ success, so we hope to use this series as a platform to show our gratitude for all they’re doing to make a difference in the lives of their students.
Rochester Academy Charter School (RACS) 8th grade English teacher Mary Ellen Stacklyn hated school when she was a kid and said she really struggled. She had learning challenges that went unrecognized for years.
So it may seem strange that she ended up back in a classroom as her profession. But she said she knew she wanted to make a difference for kids who struggled like she did.
“I knew that a lot of what I went through was something I could help other kids avoid. And ultimately, I wanted to fix the thing that eluded me the most.”
The thing that eluded her was reading. “I read slowly. Because it was hard for me it also became my favorite subject, maybe because I had to practice so much more. I also know you can explore the world through English.”
You can also change your community and the world through the ways you communicate, Mary Ellen went on to explain, so she emphasizes the importance of words when her students want to use them in social justice movements they are a part of.
“Take Black Lives Matter. A couple of students in my class are part of that movement. They are really smart boys who are really well informed but needed some help to phrase things in a way that would help further their mission. I tried to teach them that you have no power if you don’t know how to communicate.”
She went on, “The boys began to understand that how you say things becomes a representation of who you are and what you stand for. Now they are able to open the door to real problems that are happening right now and help find a way to make things better. Nothing is more exciting to me than when we can use the curriculum in school to align with what matters to our students, too.”
“They don’t teach you how to have these conversations when you’re in school. I used to be afraid of saying something wrong and offending someone. But this is so important. These problems are never going to solve themselves.”
School Director Mehmet Demirtas nominated Mary Ellen for this series saying, “She seeks ways to engage the students and to connect with them on their level, not just to complete tasks but to engage them in the love of reading and writing. In her classroom students find themselves motivated to go out and learn more about a topic and come back to report it to her.”
He went on, “Outside of the classroom, Ms. Stacklyn cares about her students on a deep level. When she was away on medical leave she communicated with the students via email to be sure they could still ask any questions they had for her. She has coached (soccer) teams through matches that were really challenging and taught the kids that being a member of a team and growing at the sport were equally important to chalking up wins.”
It’s clear Mary Ellen’s positivity makes the school a happy place to be, where teachers and students are excited about learning and their futures.
It really comes down to the reason she went into teaching in the first place, which was to make a difference.
“Who I am as a teacher is someone who is very invested in getting kids to connect with each other and with their communities.”
To that end, we asked her about her proudest moment as a teacher and she said it was in creating a safe place where her students are comfortable to talk to each other. And recently the topic was the refugee experience in America.
She said she realized early in the discussion that there were some misinterpretations about what refugees actually are. Some students didn’t understand that refugees are people fleeing because it’s unsafe in their home country. But she also has refugee students in those very classes.
“Some of them became quiet. I could tell some of them were internalizing their feelings. Once I figured out what was happening, I put everything else on hold so we could work through what was going on and help the students learn to respectfully communicate with each other. We began to have some difficult conversations as a class.
“After a couple of days the kids stood up and began to break down their thoughts and the refugee kids started talking about what was really going on in their lives.
“Right in front of my eyes they started to break down barriers and become a part of the solution for a better community. It was definitely one of my proudest moments.”
Mary Ellen said she recently attended a teaching conference in Chile where she heard this:
“To open the world you have to open minds… but in turn you have to open minds in order to open the world.”
She told us, “This is what teaching is all about to me.”
Mary Ellen is opening minds and doors to a better world -- and we’re sure she is also opening hearts along her journey as well, directly impacting kids and making a better future for them and the Rochester community.