Circleville Middle School teacher Stacey Szymczak is many things to many people.
To her students, she is caring, understanding, loving. She gives great hugs. She sees students as more than a grade and reminds them their worth is not tied up in a letter. She has high academic standards but makes sure her students are doing well outside the classroom.
“She understands and knows each and every one of us personally,” student Madison Conklin said. “She’s always there for us whenever you need to talk to her and we’re always there for her when she needs to talk to us. She’s not your average English teacher; she excels above and beyond.”
For Adriana Crews, she is a friend. For Conklin, her classroom is a safe space to eat lunch while dealing with a personal problem. For Ayla Ibrahim, she is a person to talk to when you need someone to listen.
“She talks to us like her own children,” David Tamakloe said.
This is not a one-way relationship, where the students are the only ones deriving from Szymczak’s love and talents. With the recent loss of her husband, Szymczak wondered if she would be able to teach this year. But her students are part of her way back to herself, her light through her dark times.
“If [my students] see me cry or see me unhappy in any way, they are constantly asking me ‘Are you ok?’ They actually say, ‘If you need me, I’m here for you.’ It’s not just what I do for them, it’s what they do for me,” Szymczak said.
Her students are not her only support. Szymczak said she would not be where she is today without the love and support of her coworkers, who nominated her for the Mid-Hudson School Study Council Award for Teacher Excellence. She received the award on May 2.
Colleague Melissa Schueler nominated Szymczak for the award.
“Her number one priority is her students,” Schueler said in her nomination letter. “She continues to work tirelessly to ensure that the students and colleagues on her team are well-prepared for anything thrown their way.”
Her coworkers have a lot to learn from her as well. CVMS teacher RJ Gabriel said Szymczak has taught him to see each student beyond their past and to never judge.
“[The students] are more than just a grade, they are more than just a spot on the roster,” Gabriel said.
Szymczak taught CVMS teacher Maggy Garcia when she was in eighth grade. She was one of those teachers who inspired her to go into teaching, Garcia said.
Szymczak has seen many students grow up in her 33-year career. She’s also seen many changes, whether it be integrating new technology or new curriculum, and she has always been willing to change.
She also disputes the stereotype that middle school is a tough age range to teach. If you’re born to teach, the middle school student is not any more difficult to teach than any other grade.
“If you are born to teach middle school, if you get the middle school child, they are not tough,” Szymczak said. “They are amazing.”
Her philosophy is simple: put students first. That means attending the events that aren’t paid for, such as field trips, parties, and dinner dances. It means ensuring students are doing just as well at home as they are in the classroom. It means making students feel like they matter.
“Sometimes in school I had a teacher that made me feel like I mattered and that cared about me and I always felt that I wanted to do that for kids,” Szymczak said. “So, when I became at teacher that was my main focus; it wasn’t just about the curriculum, but it was about the best way to reach them and connect with them.”