For most of us, middle school passes in a few, short, ungraceful years. For others, it becomes a profession.
Florida teacher Jo Ellen Stanley’s ongoing middle school career has earned her high praise—from her sixth-grade math class to the Governor’s office.
It all began in 2006. Stanley went to volunteer at her kids’ school in Florida and walked away with a job as a reading coach. She had a degree in education, but hadn’t yet exercised it as a teacher.
The next year, her family moved to Virginia where she taught middle school math and science. Stanley loved it and excelled. During her last two years there, 100 percent of her students passed the state math exam.
When her family returned to Florida in 2012, Stanley took a position as a sixth-grade math teacher at Lehigh Acres Middle School, a hard-to-staff school in southwest Florida. The school’s student body is more than 80 percent minority, and 100 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch (a common indicator of poverty). In this challenging environment, Stanley’s students’ experienced exceptional learning gains—so much so that this spring Florida Governor Rick Scott gave her a Shine award for outstanding educators.
While Stanley’s students likely don’t pay close attention to state test scores, they do notice that she cares about their education and has faith in their abilities. And above all, they know she doesn’t give up on students.
One sixth-grader explained why Stanley is an inspiration to her students. “She wants us to succeed in life,” said the student. “She cares, and that is all that matters.”
Stanley recognizes the significant role she plays in her students’ lives, noting that, “some of my kids spend more hours with me than with their parents.”
For other children, Stanley understands that she may be one of the few adults in their life who care. “One student was giving me some trouble and I told him, ‘I’m going to call your parents.’” she remembers. “‘Go ahead,’ he told me. ‘There’s no one there.’”
This year, Stanley is teaching at Varsity Lakes Middle School in the same town as her old school. Her strategy remains simple: push all kids to work and excel, from those who are far behind to those who are advanced.
“My students know I really want them all to succeed,” Stanley said. “I tell them, ‘even if you’re the smartest one in the class, I can help you improve.’”
As a teacher, Stanley works hard to create an environment where kids feel comfortable sharing and learning. She wants them to be willing to try and even fail. That, Stanley believes, combined with her “quitting is not an option” policy brings out the best in her students.
“Since I moved to her class, my grades went up a lot,” remarked one student. “At first I didn’t like math, but now it’s my favorite subject.”
Getting students to care about learning, Stanley says, is 90 percent of the battle. And she is even willing to foot the bill to make this happen.
Twice a year, Stanley uses her own money to offer a $100 reward to a student making great progress, or just any progress. Stanley awards tickets throughout her classes to recognize students’ effort and work. She then holds a biannual drawing to determine the winners.
This simple contest is just one of the ways Stanley engages and motivates her students. Through it all, she does more than just raise math comprehension—she also shows students they have what it takes to succeed.
One of her student succinctly expressed just why Mrs. Stanley is such an exceptional teacher. “She teaches us like a pro,” he said. “And I feel like she really likes me.”
About the author
Clare is a writer for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Prior to joining the Foundation’s communication team, Clare taught Spanish in her native Iowa and English in Jeju-do, South Korea. She graduated from Northwestern College with a degree in Spanish and Teaching English as a Second Language.