Featured Teachers: Marilyn Stevens

Photos by Daniel Vasta/The Herald
Pine Ridge Elementary preschool teacher Marilyn Stevens, right, looks at caterpillars with preschooler Avalia Huff at the school in Kyana on Wednesday.

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

KYANA — When Pine Ridge Elementary preschool teacher Marilyn Stevens, 32, takes her class outside in the spring, one of her students inevitably picks a bouquet of dandelions to give her as a gift. To Stevens, that small act is one of life’s “joy bombs,” which are small acts of kindness that make the world better. They’re one of her favorite parts of teaching.

“There’s so much love,” Stevens said. “You have little kids that come in here, and they give you everything. They pick dandelions, and that’s what they have to give you. And from those dandelions, you have a lesson.”

From those dandelions, Stevens said, she can create a lesson about the herb and its uses, make dandelion tea or dandelion art. Any of those lessons help her students learn through play, which is her favorite way to teach and how preschool-aged children are meant to learn. It seems the community agrees with Stevens’ teaching style. She was recently voted one of the best teachers in the county in The Herald’s Best of Dubois County.

Stevens said she was humbled and surprised to be voted one of the Best of Dubois County. Pine Ridge Principal Ryan Haas wasn’t surprised. Although Stevens is only in her first year at Pine Ridge, Haas said he’s already heard from parents that they love her and the attention she gives her students.

“She takes time to get to know all her students and figure out what they need to be ready for kindergarten,” Haas said.

Individualized teaching is important to Stevens. She has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, known as ADHD, so she struggled in school and ended up hating it most days. Now, she said, teachers have a lot more resources to specialize instruction to different learning styles.

“You may have a child who just likes to learn with dinosaurs,” Stevens said. “You take that, and you expand from there. You don’t hold them back just because they learn a specific way. You want to encourage individualism. You want to encourage community growth. You want to encourage that childlike spirit.”

In teaching, Stevens said, she’s found her dream job and her passion, but it took a few tries. Stevens didn’t start teaching until 2016 when she and her husband, Brian, moved to Dubois County from Columbus, Indiana. The couple now lives in Huntingburg with their three daughters, Estie, 7, Nora, 4, and Lyla, 8 months.

Pine Ridge Elementary preschool teacher Marilyn Stevens leads a calendar exercise during her class at the school in Kyana on Wednesday. 

Stevens said she never expected to be working with kids, but when Estie was born, something clicked in her, and she discovered she wanted to be around kids and help them in any way she could.

She and Brian also decided they wanted a large family at the same time, so they became foster parents in the Columbus area. During the next two years, Stevens said, they had more than 10 kids move through their home. Marilyn also got a job as the children’s ministry assistant at First Christian Church in Columbus.

When Brian got a job with Jasper Engines in 2016 and the family moved, Marilyn took a job at HUMmingbird Day Care Ministries in Holland. Her co-workers there encouraged her to go back to school for early childhood education.

Stevens was wary of going back to school at first. It would be her third time going back, and she was already busy with two young daughters. But her co-workers at HUMmingbird kept encouraging her, and Brian supported the idea, promising they could make it work.

Marilyn enrolled at Ivy Tech two years ago and will graduate in May with an associate degree in applied science before pursuing a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education. She’s in the process of applying to bachelor’s programs now.

“I kick myself for not doing it sooner,” Stevens said. “But at the same time, I would have failed if I had done it sooner. That’s one of the big life lessons I try to teach my own daughters — do things when you’re ready.”

The other times Stevens went to college, she did it because other people told her she needed to. She ended up studying things she didn’t like just to get the degree society told her she needed. This time, Stevens said, it’s different. She’s passionate about teaching and what she’s learning in her classes. This time around, she’s pursuing her degree out of a desire to foster her passion for kids and to be the best teacher she can be.

It’s been challenging. With three young kids at home, Stevens was already a full-time mom before she took on a full-time teaching job. Adding a full college courseload made life even crazier. But Brian’s been supportive of her all the way, Marilyn said.

“He’s been the one that’s like, ‘Go, go do this. You’re good. Go do it,’” Marilyn said of her husband.

For Brian, seeing Marilyn pursue her passion is worth the extra craziness her busy schedule brings to their lives.

Pine Ridge Elementary preschool teacher Marilyn Stevens, right, works with easter eggs and play-doh with preschooler Adalyn Stroud during her class at the school in Kyana on Wednesday.

“It’s really fun to watch her now be so driven toward a goal, because she was such a free spirit when I met her,” Brian said.

Back then, Marilyn said, she thought she’d be living in a New York City apartment with an art studio. Brian is thankful he’s gotten to watch her grow from that free spirit into a driven, goal-oriented woman determined to be the best teacher she can be.

“I love and admire Marilyn for being a Godly wife and mom of three with a full-time job in teaching children all while going to university and managing to keep home going, too,” he said.

Although Marilyn said she likes her life now more than she would have liked the flat in New York City she had planned, you can see signs of that creative, free spirit in her classroom. All of her lessons have a creative edge.

To learn about colors, she put paint in bubble soap and had her students blow bubbles onto a piece of paper to make bubble art. For a lesson on octopuses, the students turned empty water bottles into the aquatic creatures.

And it’s not uncommon to come into Marilyn’s classroom and find her students dancing along to a YouTube video to “get the wiggles” out. Right now, the class favorite is The Learning Station’s “Herman the Worm,” which teaches counting through a song about a hungry worm.

Looking ahead, Marilyn isn’t sure how her teaching career will play out. When she finishes college, she’ll have a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education and special education. She loves the freedom and creativity of teaching preschool and doesn’t want to lose that by moving into teaching older children. On the other hand, she’d like to do more with special education programming, too.

For now, she’s focused on being the best teacher she can be and on getting to her college graduation. The rest will fall into place when the time is right.

One thing is for sure, though: Marilyn’s found the career from which she’ll retire.




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