Teacher inspires students to become educators

Educators in the Bear Lake School District say veteran English teacher Tammy Stephens influenced them to enter the education field — and still inspires them with her commitment to the school and the community.

MONTPELIER — Former Bear Lake High School student Tahnee Cook remembers the look English teacher Tammy Stephens would sometimes give her when she’d ask a question in class.

“It’s not a harsh or demeaning look, but you know she wants you to think for yourself,” said Cook.

Cook said she still gets that look from the 37-year educator. Only now, she’s is a first-year teacher at the high school and Stephens is a colleague and a mentor.

Cook and other educators across the 1,100-student Bear Lake School District recently shared how Stephens influenced them to enter the education field — and how she still inspires them to improve their craft.

“She taught me more than any other teacher,” said Bear Lake High School counselor Cameron Crane, recalling Stephens pulling him aside as a student and saying he had a “brain for college.”

“I remember this having a large impact on me,” said Crane, who had been considering a career as a miner.

Bear Lake Middle School teacher Erin Strange pointed to Stephens’ resistance to “slide into that autopilot mode that so many veteran teachers succumb to” as inspiration both as a student and as a colleague.

“She has never stopped developing herself, her skills, her philosophies, or her commitment to student success and preparedness,” said Strange, recalling Stephens’ zeal in delivering what she remembers as the school’s first-ever PowerPoint presentation in the 90s.

“I thought she was a wizard,” said Strange, adding that Stephens exudes similar zeal in teaching kids in the rural Southeast Idaho town how to write a blog or teach using smart board.

Stephens’ “ever-learning” attitude has spurred a troop of “Tammy alumni” in Bear Lake and across the state, Strange said. By her tally:

  • Bear Lake High has five teachers who took Stephens’ English class.
  • At least 15 others work in Bear Lake’s middle and elementary schools.
  • At least two dozen more work in other districts in Idaho and in other states.

Stephens said she’s not trying to persuade students to become educators. Her philosophy is getting kids to “learn how to learn,” so they can “move on with a passion somewhere instead of being stuck in a dead-end job with a negative attitude.”

Former students say that sounds right, but add that Stephens’ “quiet commitment” to the district and the community for nearly 40 years inspires others in ways she may not realize.

“I have never seen a veteran teacher not only so open to change but leading the charge,” said Bear Lake High principal Luke Kelsey, who described Stephens’ “legendary” thanksgiving food drives and Christmas toy drives as the school’s longtime student council advisor.

She also handles the school concessions and is the local Presbyterian minister, Kelsey said. “No matter what she does, she goes above and beyond.”

Bear Lake High English teacher Tabetha Bissegger said she’s in Stephens’ classroom everyday for advice.

“She is like a superhero at school,” said Bissegger. “She does all the jobs nobody else wants to do. She engages with her students in meaningful ways. She is innovating, and she will do anything to help a student pass her class.”

That’s not always easy, said Cook, who described Stephens’ English classes as some of the hardest at the high school.

“She’s kind of the strict, scary teacher sometimes,” said Cook. “But the students secretly like her because she makes them work hard to pass. They have to earn it.”

From left: Cook, Bissegger, Stephens.
Devin Bodkin

About Devin Bodkin

Reporter Devin Bodkin covers education issues in East Idaho. He is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. He is a 2019 Solutions Journalism Network fellow and the Idaho Press Club's 2019 print reporter of the year. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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