Grade “A” education: Local educators honored as Teachers of the Year

One goal that always stays on the curriculum for Mendy Stahl, Haley Davis and Matthew Dennis is to brighten the minds and futures of their students.

For this goal is why they were honored as Teachers of the Year at the Jackson County Chamber annual dinner and awards ceremony March 3 at Pewter Hall in Brownstown.

Haley Davis

Davis was born and raised in Texas in what she thought was a small country town. Then she graduated from Texas A&M University with a teaching certificate in elementary education and English as a second language.

“After moving to Seymour to get married to my now husband, I definitely have a new definition of small town, as it is a third of the size of the town I grew up in,” Davis said.

While she said it was tough leaving family, friends and the Chick-fil-A just down the street from her, it was an easy transition because her husband and in-laws helped her feel at home.

Davis taught in Texas for two years before moving to Seymour. She said the transition to teaching pre-K and fourth grade to teaching fifth grade in Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. helped her grow as an educator.

“Teaching at a project-based learning school was good for me and taught me ways to be creative in my teaching styles,” she said.

As Davis enjoys teaching and loves being around her students, it wasn’t the first profession she dreamed of.

“Growing up, I thought it would be fun to be a lawyer, as my mom always reminded me that I was good at arguing,” Davis said.

Once high school came around, Davis thought nursing would be a good calling. She even took some courses in high school and enjoyed it until the time came to give a real person a shot. Then she quickly realized nursing wasn’t for her.

Even though teaching wasn’t her dream at first, she believes God put her in the right seat.

“I’m glad teaching was where God placed me because it has been such a blessing getting to pour into the lives of children,” she said.

Davis said her favorite part of her job is not just teaching her multilingual students but what the students teach her.

“Not only have they taught me Spanish and about their culture, but they have also taught me to find joy in the small things, to be content with what I have and where I am at and the ability to show up and work no matter what life circumstances you may be experiencing,” Davis said.

Building relationships with her students has been an honor and a blessing for Davis, but she also said teaching isn’t always easy.

“It is one of only few jobs in which you have to be ‘on’ at all times,” she said. “You must be willing to leave your own problems at the door every morning so you can help your students.”

Davis said she hopes to make a difference for her students and make them feel heard, loved and appreciated in a society that is not always welcoming or accepting of them simply because of where they were born.

“It’s an honor to be their advocate in the school systems for equitable education, and I plan on continuing to advocate for their needs as students and for many as immigrants,” Davis said.

It was teaching in Mexico during college where she found her love for the culture and multilingual learners. Davis would only teach half-days, but the teachers were able to have lunch with their students, made by their parents, and play a game of soccer.

Davis still remembers her first and best memory of being a teacher in Mexico with an interesting ride home.

“One afternoon, one of my students asked if I wanted to ride home with him on his donkey named Shrek that he rode to and from school each day. You bet I said yes,” she said.

Davis said some of her best memories are not from the meetings she went to or the lessons she taught, but the relationships she built and the impact the students have made on her life.

Davis’ dream for Seymour is to eventually have an institute of culture or an immigration welcome center, where immigrants can come for resources on becoming citizens, homework help for students in their home language and families to have access to resources that are not easily available in their home language.

“In today’s highly charged political environment, it is more important than ever to be the voice that reminds our multilingual students that they are important, valued, intelligent and that they matter,” Davis said. “They are our world’s future.”

Davis said besides teaching the young minds, the only job that will ever be more important for her is being a mother.

“My two daughters are my world, and I hope I am raising them to be the future citizens of America who will love without borders and will advocate for the underserved and overlooked,” she said.

Matthew Dennis

Dennis has spent 19 years teaching at Seymour High School. He studied math and honors chemistry education at Ball State University, where he met his wife, Amanda. Since then, he has added more subjects to his repertoire.

Growing up, Dennis had exceptional educators who inspired him to pursue a career in education.

“My sixth grade math teacher, Mr. Stark in Greencastle, got me into math. When I moved to Seymour, Mr. Huddleston really pushed me in middle school, and Mr. Schuley was an excellent chemistry teacher for three of my high school years. I really wanted to become a teacher after that,” he said.

During Dennis’ senior year, the high school received a new soccer coach, Shaun Mahoney, who became a mentor to Dennis. From then, Dennis knew he wanted to pass on knowledge and make connections with the next generations.

His favorite thing about teaching is seeing the students make connections with lessons and applying them to everyday life, but far beyond teaching lessons, he enjoys hearing about their futures.

“I spend a lot of time speaking to students about life after high school, whether it be trade school, college or career. Seeing what students are going into and seeing how the options are growing and changing is also a great part of my job,” Dennis said.

Dennis had other thoughts in mind before becoming a teacher, but over the years, he has come to enjoy teaching.

“Before wanting to be a teacher, I wanted to be an accountant, like my dad. In recent years, as I added physics and computer science to my teaching license, I believe I could’ve made an excellent engineer or architect, and I’m loving coding at the moment,” Dennis said. “However, I don’t know if I would’ve gotten the interpersonal relationship from those careers that I have come to really enjoy from teaching.”

Dennis currently teaches more classes from subjects added than what is on his original degree. While it’s challenging keeping up with it all, Dennis said this opportunity to learn new disciplines has become a great career arc.

When times are stressful due to planning and reflections, Dennis finds an outlet for support in his wife, who teaches just next door.

“It’s OK to walk away, take a break and regroup. Amanda has been excellent as a supporter, both in teaching and coaching,” he said.

Dennis hopes in the future, he keeps growing as an educator and the classes he enjoys teaching grow along with him.

Just two years ago, Dennis began his computer science class with only seven students, and next year, he will have 55 enrolled in the course. In the future, he would like to see another level of computer science be offered to students who want to advance.

Dennis fondly remembers the many projects he got to work on with his students and the many stories he tells his students.

“There has been lots of fun in the classroom, great projects, like egg drops, trebuchets and water bottle cars,” he said.

Besides crunching numbers and explaining how things roll, Dennis enjoys being the boys soccer head coach, a position he has been in for the past 12 years.

“Soccer is a sport I have been a part of since I was 4. It’s a great way to stay involved in a game that I love,” Dennis said.

Dennis’ father was his first coach in soccer, and this past fall, Dennis’ son, Dominic, joined the high school team as a freshman. Soccer has been part of his family for a long time, and Dennis likes to think all of the players he has coached are part of that family, too.

As a seasoned educator, Dennis hopes future teachers strive to push young minds to reach for the stars.

“Don’t give up, and don’t lower your standards. We need good, quality educators that push young minds to be better than they thought they could be,” he said. “You’ll have a point where you don’t know how you keep going, but lean on your colleagues and mentors and know you’re in the profession that makes all other professions possible.”

Mendy Stahl

Stahl has been a teacher with Brownstown Central Community School Corp. since 1992. She knew from an early age that she wanted to become a teacher.

She began teaching first grade at Brownstown Elementary School, then moved to third grade and then the middle school.

After deciding to transfer back to the elementary school at the end of the 2018-19 school year, her family encouraged her to apply for the art teacher position.

“I was the teacher who always borrowed art supplies from Jerry Brown, the art teacher at BCMS at the time, and incorporated art into my class projects. I sponsored craft clubs at BCMS and enjoy doing arts and crafts myself,” she said.

Stahl said her favorite part about teaching art is seeing more than 600 students in her class each week. She loves that they are excited to create and take risks when it comes to projects.

Stahl said she is grateful for a welcoming and supportive staff within the school when life gets stressful.

When changing to art, Stahl’s goal was to learn how to utilize all of the different art supplies and then use them with her students. After extensive research and attending conferences so she felt confident in her position, she said she will never forget the first time she painted with her kindergarten and first grade classes.

A few activities she enjoys doing each school year are creating a schoolwide mural and her current M(art)ch Madness activity with her students.

Last week, Stahl had a face-off of the “Ninja Turtles,” Michelangelo vs. Leonardo (Da Vinci), and then the students taped their papers to the underside of the table and drew a picture lying on their back like Michelangelo did in painting the Sistine Chapel.

While Stahl is not sure how much longer she will teach, she is enjoying the moments she has with her students in creating art. Once the time comes, though, she is excited to take up the position as a full-time grandma to her granddaughter, Ella.