A class taught by Mark Stephens 1760 is regularly more theater than lecture. Stephens’ creativity is on display each day as he steps onto his stage, transforming himself into a number of characters—King Ferdinand of Spain, a judge at the Salem Witch Trials, a journeyman weaver in colonial Virginia—all in his quest to masterfully engage his students.
“It’s not the individual character that matters,” says Stephens, who will complete his 37th and final year at GA this June. “It's how that character can bring kids into their particular world and give them a stake in what happens there. The kids can use all their skills and knowledge in order to find success— whether that means being found innocent, moving to Detroit, or being sponsored on a voyage west in search of the Isles of Spice.
“Simulation, at its root, is simply asking a question in second person and fully expecting a response in first person. It's putting the kids inside the situation or time period that you're studying and letting them learn ‘from the inside.’ It's getting them to suspend disbelief for just a little while.”
And that, in a nutshell, is classic Stephens - an exciting storyteller who can transform a history lesson into time travel, a director who guides his cast to form and appreciate better points of view, and a producer who magically helps students find the courage to volunteer an opinion during class discussion - all wrapped up into a legend in the classroom, his personal set.
“Mark is a veritable GA icon,” said Head of School Rich Schellhas 1760. “His passion for history, current events, and good old-fashioned intellectual discourse have rendered him a magnet for students of all ages for decades. Each year, when I ask seniors in their exit interviews of their fondest Middle School memories, so many harken back to Mr. Stephens’ dynamic classroom and his wonderfully unique and enthusiastic take on the stories of the world. While I will truly miss his trademark belly laugh, lightning quick mind, gentlemanly politesse, and significant contributions to the intellectual life of the Academy, I know that Mark’s legacy continues to shape the lives of thousands of Patriots, students and faculty alike, who have become better people, thinkers, and citizens thanks to his inspiration.”
Mark’s GA career has been marked with impressive accolades. He was named a Level IV Master Teacher in 1994, the William Schoff English Chair in 2000, and the Peter Biggs History Chair in 2020. He was also the recipient of three Outstanding Teacher/Distinguished Achievement Awards, eight Edward Kast Grant awards, and is a member of GA’s honorary alumni Class of 1760.
“Germantown Academy has allowed me to grow up,” said Stephens, who taught at the Casady School in Oklahoma City for eight years prior to coming to Fort Washington. “The school has always had my back. That level of complete trust opens many doors. GA’s support allowed me—no, encouraged me—to try things, no matter how harebrained they might seem. Because of GA, I was part of an educational delegation to China. I became a fellow with the National Archives, the National Council for the Social Studies, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. I worked on the Executive Panel that wrote the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress (the “Nation’s Report Card”) for Congress. As the national chair of the National Council for the Social Studies instruction committee, I flew around the country a bit, visiting classes where extraordinary teachers were trying amazing things. GA recognized right away what it took me years to appreciate: my doing these things wasn’t the important part. What mattered was what I could bring back to the school – and to my kids – because of these experiences.”
Here at GA, Mark has served in both the Lower School and Middle School. He taught sixth grade math for one year, then fourth grade for 10 years, and sixth grade writing for one year. Then came sixth’s grade big move to the Middle School in 1996 where he taught English, and continues as a member of the history faculty. His extracurricular experiences include having coached Middle School and Upper School girls’ soccer, Middle School baseball, and Middle School softball. Mark also played a huge role in growing GA’s Academy Scholars Program alongside Sue Negro 1760.
And while Mark has plans for some truly epic adventures, he is grateful for the countless memories that will accompany him into retirement.
“I’m extremely thankful for the school’s patience and for its confidence in trusting me to take 60 people every year, come to know them, and try to guide them. I’m thankful for kids who come back to visit and for colleagues who support each other, even when it means asking the hard questions.”
“I have a vivid picture of walking out of the University of Pennsylvania theater between TED Talks, encouraging Academy Scholars to discuss ideas with the speakers”
“I remember sitting outside our United State senator’s office with a dozen kids, being 10 minutes early for a brief handshake and photo during the second year of our Washington D.C. trip. I can close my eyes and see the senator walking by us, then asking us who we were, then sitting on the bench and talking with us, then asking his secretary to move his next appointment so that we could continue the conversation.”
“I remember Lower School softball games and Upper School soccer games. I remember a student’s locker crammed full of baseball cards and another’s covered with mashed potatoes and gravy. I remember the kids. Always the kids.”
Love of Teaching:
“Garfield saw his faithful friend Odie, a dog, happily wagging his tail out on the limb of a tree that Odie had climbed. In his thought bubble Garfield said, ‘It’s amazing what you can do if you don’t know what you can’t do.’ I agree.”
“I guess that it never made sense to me that information had its own value, independent of learners/users. Sure, 5x7=35, Albany is the capital of New York, and protagonists usually succeed, but this is completely irrelevant except for the impact that it has on our kids. If we can't lead them to wonder about it, then it's just noise. It goes straight into deep memory, without mattering. We need to have them ask ‘WHY’ because they genuinely want to know. It's not about the textbook or the problems, it's about THE KIDS who read the textbook and work on the problems. It's about the kids who use the textbook or the problems as an avenue to wonder, who stub their toe on the root of a great question as they work on what they think is a set of textbook exercises. In reality, these problems, even the textbook itself, are just invitations to become involved in a tiny corner of the learning process.”
Mark is thankful for:
“I am thankful that my daughter found a mentor and friend in Kurt Wetzel, and later found a safe haven, self-confidence, and her own voice in Judy Krouse’s history room.”
“Many expert educators have shaped my world. I’ve been inspired by Gwen Brown and the amazing Sandy Bennett, by Rollie Wakeman, Kendall Mattern, and Sue Negro, and by Jim Eichsteadt, Bayard Templeton, and Jonas Jeswald. My biggest inspiration, however, came from an incredible mentor and friend, Emily Rubinfield. Em was a powerful force in education, and I can’t imagine a better friend or a better colleague. How do you tell such people how grateful you are for their support and friendship?”
“A good question is often more powerful than a good answer.”
“You can’t trust your eyes if your imagination is out of focus.” (Mark Twain)
Next Page of Life:
“My wife and I would like to visit Maine, with an eye toward moving there. We’d like to take a cruise on the Columbia and Snake River, where Lewis and Clark went beyond the boundary of the United States to reach ‘the far ocean.’ We would also like to do a cruise of the Greek Islands and maybe reconnect with a pair of students I taught 30+ years ago. I’d like to learn how to cross-country ski, do woodworking, and chip closer to the pin from a tight lie. I’d really like to work on a particular pedagogical idea that’s been ‘sitting right there’ for more than a decade. It’s a simple concept, but I need to find ‘a computer person’ with whom I can work.”
What Mark Will Miss Most:
“The kids. There’s really nothing more to say. Everything else feeds into how we can help them to shape themselves as people and empower them as learners.”
“I’ll miss Flag Raising. It’s opening a new book in a favorite series. I’ll miss the scramble to learn kids’ names at the start of the year, then the honor of learning about them as the year gathers steam. I’ll miss the Williamsburg trip that was passed down to seventh grade in 2000, and the Washington trip the way it was designed for eighth grade the same year.”
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Honor Mark with a Gift to GA!
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