The morning after being named the 2016 Teacher of the Year in the Muscogee County School District, Stefan Lawrence had more than 100 text messages on his phone. A banner full of congratulations stretched along the wall across the hall from his Carver High classroom’s door, decorated to celebrate his honor.
“Not much sleep,” he said with a smile, “but I’m still on a high of adrenaline from last night.”
The Muscogee Educational Excellence Foundation announced during its annual gala Thursday night that Lawrence is the winner out of 56 nominees in the district. But the students in his 11th-grade American Literature class Friday sure didn’t need a selection committee to tell them how blessed they are to have him as their teacher.
“Some teachers teach exactly the standard, but he knows how to break it down and tell us how to understand it and how to study it,” said Anthony Watson, 17. “… He’ll help you out. If you need one-on-one time, he’ll work with you.”
Tiana Randolph, 17, is grateful for Lawrence’s patience, compassion and humor.
“If he gives you something, even if you forgot how to do it, he never gets frustrated with you,” she said. “He’s going to work with you at the same time … so you can understand it better with your own perspective.”
Lawrence is the head coach of Carver’s freshman and junior varsity boys basketball teams and assists the varsity. Daniel Melvin, 17, is one of the players who appreciate Lawrence finding the right balance between tough and approachable.
“If you need somebody to talk to, you can come talk to him,” Daniel said. “If you need a good role model, you can look up to him. You know he cares. So if he does get on you, you don’t take it to heart too much because he has your back too.”
Lawrence sat down with the Ledger-Enquirer for a Q&A. The following excerpts are edited for brevity and clarity:
Q: So what’s the past 12 hours been like for you?
A: Crazy. Last night was just real humbling. I did not know that many people thought well of me. I punch the clock every day, and I feel like I have an important job to do. I just try to do it to the best of my ability. … I’m more comfortable and better at it due to support and guidance and professional development. I’m just blessed, man. This is nuts, but I’m ready to work. I’m ready to be about the business of holding this banner and roll up my sleeves and get to work for the children of this district. I’m extremely excited about that. I can’t wait.
Q: You will have a platform as Teacher of the Year to be an advocate. What’s the most important message you want to communicate during the next year?
A: I want to make sure that people know that education is a community investment. It is vital to the community that our educational system thrives. … We’ve got to be about constantly improving, constantly being honest with ourselves, constantly evaluating ourselves. There are inequities that need to be addressed, and we have to be bold enough to correct them. … If you’re staying stagnant, you’re essentially dying. There is so much potential in this area, and at the heart of it — I truly, truly believe this — at the heart of it is the Muscogee County School District, and I’m absolutely honored to be the spokesperson this year.
Q: You mentioned inequities. Which inequity concerns you most and how would you address it?
A: I would like to see the performance of minorities improve in advanced coursework.
Q: Is that what your dissertation will be about?
A: Yes. … Data has proven that kids who participate in advanced coursework, kids who participate in AP courses and International Baccalaureate programs, they end up better in life. They make more. Their quality of life is better. Studies are looking at how their children end up. And we are underserving and underperforming in that regard.
Q: Well, you’ve certainly started improving that area here. Since you became AP coordinator at Carver two years ago, the number of AP exams taken at the school has increased from six in 2014 to 95 in 2015 and now 135 in 2016. How did y’all do that?
A: Invitational Theory by William Purkey. Kids have got to feel empowered, and they’ve got to feel efficacious. They’ve got to know they are capable of doing the task. You don’t have to look at the kid on stage and say, “He can do that because he’s smart,” because you’re also smart. That kid may just spend more time studying than you. So we’ve got to better identify talent. We’ve got to stop excluding kids from academic opportunities because of behavior. A lot of studies say behavior is bad because academically they’re not being challenged. … By the time they get to us at Carver, they’ve been in school for eight years, and they’ve been told for eight years, “This isn’t for you.” So of course they think it’s not for them. Invitational Theory curbs that.
Q: What has that approach looked like here? How did you implement Invitational Theory at Carver?
A: I talked to every kid in the magnet (program). I told them, “I’m the new AP coordinator, and it’s time to shake things up.” … We talked about real issues. We talked about why AP is important. We talked about what to expect on the exams. But I think the biggest step was the financial barrier. They know that there is a $91 charge (for each AP test). I talked to the state AP people, and we got funding for these kids.
Q: Did that funding source already exist?
A: Yes. They get exempt because of their socioeconomic status.
Q: And nobody at Carver knew that before you found out?
A: That’s Invitational Theory.
Q: Access to information? Breaking a secret code?
A: Exactly. We’re talking about systems. There are systems at work that contradict success in many ways. … And to be fair, we’re talking about Carver and the amazing work that my principal (Chris Lindsey) has done. It takes a hell of a leader to acknowledge, “I have fallen short here (in AP exam participation), and I believe you’re the guy who can fortify this area of weakness in our school.” He’s been focused on the graduation rate (increased from 58.6 percent in 2014 to 76.4 percent in 2015), and he should be. That’s the bottom line. We’ve got to walk first. … But he understands that this is the next step.
Q: Invitational Theory might explain how you became a teacher. You’ve said you were a pre-pharmacist major because you saw an ad for a pharmacist job earning $55 an hour. Even though your father is a teacher, you weren’t considering that path until your sophomore year, when James Brewbaker, the late CSU education professor, encouraged you after he noticed how well you taught kids at a basketball camp. Why did you follow his suggestion?
A: It’s hard to talk about him and not cry. Him and Coach (Herbert) Greene (the late CSU men’s basketball coach), man, they were everything to me. It was the passion with which he delivered that idea to me. He let me know how much of a difference I could potentially make, and I was miserable in pre-pharm. … There’s an issue with the perception of educators. Sadly, I think a lot of it comes from educators. They feel unappreciated. They feel underpaid. That’s all true. The field of education, the profession, the art, is not revered like it used to be. I think that’s why I never considered it before.
Q: What did your dad tell you?
A: He said there’s a million black men coaching. They need to see you in a different light. … That’s all I needed. I saw Dr. Brewbaker the next day, and we changed my major.
Q: Why did you choose to teach English?
A: I’ve always like to express myself verbally. I think it’s the most interdisciplinary of the subjects. It connects to everything else in the school.
Q: Then how should we attract more talented folks like you to become teachers and how can we retain them better?
A: You don’t value them with money. Being at UGA, I’ve had access to a lot of national surveys. The pay is like the third or fourth reason that teachers would change. No. 1 is administrative support. They feel like they’re not valued. When you combine not feeling valued with the low pay, then you see the flight. They’re not compensated enough to feel undervalued. We’ve got to fix that. They can be overworked, but they’ll take that — we’re asked to do a lot as educators — but teachers have to feel supported. … I want to be a sounding board for teachers. I want to start a YouTube channel, and I want it to be a place for teachers to converse. I want to address issues. I want my voice to be used.
Q: During your acceptance speech last night, you honored the memory of Carver baseball coach David Pollard, who was killed last month, when a stolen car driven by a 19-year-old dropout crashed into him. How do we address the problems that led to that horrible story?
A: I would like to see more involvement in the community. ... We need to get more creative with our thinking. We need to have Skype sessions with people who have messed up. We need to bring the reality to our students. If everything kids know about a bad decision is something that’s been sensationalized on a Netflix series, what does that do for them? But if you can have the exposure for them to engage in dialogue with somebody who has messed up, I think you would talk to them on a more tangible level. I think the power of it increases.
Occupation: English teacher, Advanced Placement coordinator, head freshman and junior varsity boys basketball coach, assists the varsity, at Carver High School.
Education: Master’s and bachelor’s degree in secondary education (English) from Columbus State University, where he played basketball; graduated from Northside High; also attended Hardaway High, Fort Middle, St. Elmo Center for the Gifted and Reese Road Elementary. He is working on a doctorate from the University of Georgia.
Family: Father, Kenneth, teaches physical education and coaches boys basketball at Northside High; mother, Marilyn, and sister, Chelsea, are physical therapists; grandparents Annie Jean and Robert Lee Bass.