Editor’s note: This is the first report in a two-part series about South Dakota Teacher of the Year Stephanie Ballard of Mickelson Middle School.
BROOKINGS – Stephanie Ballard was named South Dakota Teacher of the Year a few months ago. She will find out in the next few weeks if she is one of the four finalists for National Teacher of the Year.
Ballard teaches special education at Mickelson Middle School in Brookings.
“It’s just really humbling (to be chosen state Teacher of the Year) … I don’t see myself as a super-seasoned teacher,” Ballard said, citing the fact she’s been teaching for only eight years.
Ballard has been on the journey for most of 2021. Early last year, she was named Mickelson’s Teacher of the Year after being nominated by her fellow teachers.
“Each teacher of the year from each school then goes on to a committee at the district level and that committee decides the Brookings School District Teacher of the Year,” Ballard said.
She earned that honor, as well, then went through an application process with 30-40 other teachers at the regional level. After being named Teacher of the Year in Region 1, Ballard competed against the other four Regional Teachers of the Year in the state. The application process included writing essays and submitting letters of recommendation and videos of herself teaching in the classroom to a committee.
“I had to go to Pierre for a day and do some interviews with the state panel. I had to submit another application with other essays, more videos of my teaching. And then in October, they named … the one South Dakota Teacher of the Year. I was awarded the state award in October,” Ballard said.
“I met the other four regional teachers of the year, and they were all incredible teachers. I’m sure any of us would have been a worthy recipient of it,” she added.
She’s one of 56 state teachers competing for the title of National Teacher of the Year. That number includes all the states, Washington D.C., and U.S. territories.
“They will select, I believe, four finalists sometime in January,” Ballard said.
In April, the four state Teachers of the Year will go to “Washington Week,” where the National Teacher of the Year will be announced, Ballard said.
Raised in Hutchinson, Minnesota, where she graduated from high school, Ballard went to college with the intention of being a social worker.
“In my first semester there, I just knew maybe this major isn’t for me,” Ballad said.
She did a practicum, observing in a classroom. There was a little boy with autism, and “I just really made a connection with this boy and I loved this little boy and I just knew special education is what I want to do,” Ballard said.
Another reason she was drawn to teaching was her own experience as a student and being encouraged by some teachers. After being homeschooled by her mother, she entered the public school system in sixth grade, going through middle school and high school in the system.
“The teachers that really stand out … they were good teachers in the classroom, but they cared about me outside of the classroom,” Ballard said, mentioning a choir teacher who encouraged her to try out for community theater and drama.
“These teachers not only taught me what I needed to know academically, but they taught me what I needed to pursue and interests that became lifelong passions,” Ballard said.
She double-majored at Minnesota State University in Moorhead, earning degrees in elementary inclusive education and special education, graduating in May 2014.
Her then-fiance Jacob Ballard got a job in Brookings, so she started student teaching at Mickelson Middle School and Hillcrest. She moved to Camelot Intermediate School as a special ed teacher, earning Camelot’s Teacher of the Year while there. She accepted a position at Mickelson.
“I’ve always liked middle school students, so I transitioned to the middle school,” Ballard said. “I’ve been here ever since.”
She and Jacob got married. He’s now an engineer at 3M, and they have a 4-year-old daughter, Jayla.
Keeping track of progress
One of the best things for Ballard about being a teacher is when she sees how far her students have come.
“It’s probably gonna sound crazy, but … one thing that gets me really excited is progress and data,” she said.
“As a special ed teacher, I teach students who have either a learning disability or an autism spectrum disorder, ADHD – a disability that’s impacting their ability to learn, either reading, writing or math or social skill or attention issue at school,” Ballard said.
Sometimes it’s difficult for those kids to keep up in a classroom with 25 other students and that’s where a teacher like Ballard comes in.
She evaluates the student and shows they’re not performing where they need to be or can be and they need intervention. Then she works with the student, setting goals for their age and the subject, “and we’re gonna do tons of drill and practice and come up with resources and activities that is gonna help this student learn this skill,” Ballard said.
“Once a student is in special education, I have to regularly – at least four times a year – report on their progress,” Ballard said.
“I’m required by law to show that the student is making progress in my classroom, in special ed and then I have to report that to parents and put in their file that the state looks at,” Ballard said.
“When it finally clicks or when a student finally meets that goal and I have all the data … to show that the student met this goal and that what I’m doing is working for this student, that honestly is really rewarding to me,” Ballard said.
“Another thing that gets me excited is when I am able to dismiss a student from special ed,” she said.
“As a special ed teacher, my end goal is not that the student stays in special education for their entire educational career,” Ballard said.
She wants to help them catch up and give them skills to stay caught up and learn what they need to know; and she likes knowing that they can go on without needing her services.
“What’s kind of cool at the middle school is we loop with our students so I take incoming sixth-graders every three years and then I’m their case manager or their teacher for sixth, seventh and eighth grade and oftentimes, I re-evaluate them in eighth grade,” Ballard said.
Sometimes she finds that students are performing at grade level and don’t qualify for her services anymore, and she has the data to back that up. She likes being able to measure their progress and having proof the student has improved.
“While it’s sad to see them leave my program and leave my classroom, it’s just really rewarding,” Ballard said.
Contact Jodelle Greiner at [email protected]