Minnesota's Teacher of the Year, who teaches in a Spanish immersion program in St. Louis Park, was honored in Brooklyn Park.
Five minutes after Lee-Ann Stephens was named Minnesota's Teacher of the Year, she was still hugging friends, dabbing tears and answering a rush of questions. "I do feel like I've won Miss America," she said amid a crush of well-wishers.
Stephens, 43, won the annual honor Sunday, 16 years after she gave up a career in business and decided to try teaching. For the past four years, she has taught English in the Park Spanish Immersion School in St. Louis Park. She teaches five classes a day, she said, and a total of 120 students.
"She's really like a second mother to a lot of them," said Joan Warren, Stephens' mother, who stood nearby as a small quartet played "Over the Rainbow." Warren said: "They come to her with their problems."
Stephens was chosen from 119 candidates by Education Minnesota, representing 70,000 educators. The award has been given annually since 1964. Four Minnesota winners have gone on to win the national honor.
Stephens said she was an associate buyer for Dayton-Hudson when she decided it was time to change careers. "We really do affect lives," she said. As she compared teaching to a business career, she asked herself "who's going to remember me for picking out the right dress for someone?"
Teresa Maldonado, a freshman at St. Louis Park High School, said she still visits Stephens even though it has been three years since she had her as a teacher. Teresa, who attended Sunday's ceremony, said Stephens taught her "not just school lessons, but life lessons."
Stephens' class, she said, was "like a big family."
Samuel Burciaga, a sixth-grader, said he is enjoying his second year being taught by Stephens. "Even though she's fun, she shows us how to do stuff," he said. "Everyday of my life, I think she's the best."
Only recently, Stephens said she played football with her sixth-graders. "I threw a touchdown pass. They were so impressed," she said. "I do love what I do."
Park Spanish Immersion is a full-immersion program, meaning that the entire curriculum is taught in Spanish with the exception of English and language arts classes taught by Stephens and others.
Stephens, who taught for 12 years in Minneapolis schools, had been nominated for the award once before -- in her first year of teaching, 16 years ago.
In accepting her award, Stephens told a large crowd of educators on Sunday to "keep doing what you're doing, because it matters." To her students, some of whom were in the audience, she added: "You have homework this week. There's no vacation here."
Stephens, who lives in St. Louis Park with her husband and two children, said she also made it a point to live in the same community where she teaches. "I've got to be part of the community," she said. "I see my students all the time, in Target and everywhere."
Joelle McIlroy, who taught Stephens in high school in Ohio, watched as her former pupil accepted the honor. "She was always a very honest and determined person. Teaching is her thing. I saw that [in her] as a young person."