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story.lead_photo.caption Stacey Brantley, a first-grade teacher at Murrell Taylor Elementary School, was named the 2018 Teacher of the Year for the Jacksonville North Pulaski School District. Brantley recently completed her fourth year at Murrell Taylor and her 15th year as a teacher. - Photo by Mark Buffalo

Stacey Brantley of Cabot, a first-grade teacher at Murrell Taylor Elementary School in Jacksonville, is wise when it comes to teaching.

“These are good kids. … They want to have fun, they want to be loved, and if you can make what you do in the classroom run between the hours of 8 to 3, and if you love them, they will respect you,” Brantley said. “If you love that kid and let that kid have fun, the rest is easy.”

Brantley, who recently completed her fourth year at Murrell Taylor, is the 2017-18 Jacksonville North Pulaski School District Teacher of the Year. She received the honor at a reception for award winners and retirees May 21.

To be eligible for the district award, Brantley was the Building Teacher of the Year for Murrell Taylor.

“We voted as a staff for our Building Teacher of the Year, and I found out a few days before the actual District Teacher of the Year ceremony,” she said. “My colleagues voted for me for that award.”

When she received the district award, Brantley said, she was “absolutely shocked.”

“I knew a few of the teachers who were nominated for their building,” she said. “It was such a huge honor. I was surprised. I didn’t know until the night of the banquet.”

Murrell Taylor Principal Myeisha Haywood said the central office picks the teacher of the year for the district from the building honorees.

“They have a committee and a rubric that they utilize,” Haywood said. “They read each one of those nomination slips and what the teachers have to say about them. They rank them with the other teachers in the district against the rubric. They felt [Brantley] was just exceptional. They are all great, but she was that one.”

Brantley, who has been teaching for 15 years, said she always wanted to work with children. She just didn’t know in what capacity.

“My mom went back to school to become a teacher when I was in junior high,” Brantley said of her mother, Sherry Sanders, who died in 2015. “I watched that whole process.”

Brantley said her mother worked in the Little Rock School District, then at an alternative-learning school in Jonesboro.

“She always worked in an inner-city school with lower-economic kids,” Brantley said. “I’d go with her when she taught summer school. I’d just watch that whole process that she went through, and it just inspired me to do the same. I just felt like that was what I was called to do.”

After graduating from Sheridan High School in 1997, Brantley attended the University of Arkansas at Little Rock before transferring to Arkansas State University-Jonesboro after her family moved there. She earned her bachelor’s degree in early-childhood education from ASU in December 2002. At that point, Brantley did long-term substitute teaching. In August 2002, she was hired by the West Memphis School District.

“I just loved it,” Brantley said. “I loved those kids. I keep a picture of one of my little girls that I taught to this day in my classroom to remind myself that hard days are worth it.”

Brantley said teaching in West Memphis was rewarding, especially because the school where she taught was one of the lowest academically in the state.

“Those two years working in that school changed my perspective on teaching,” she said. “The hard days are worth it. The hard kids are worth it. They need you the most.”

Brantley moved to other districts, including spending six years in St. Louis.

“I worked in a diverse, childhood setting where we stayed with our kids for two years at a time,” she said. “We started in kindergarten and moved to first grade. I was there for six years, and we decided to move home.”

Brantley interviewed for a position at Murrell Taylor with Haywood, hoping for a first-grade job. However, one was not available at the time. Brantley was offered fifth-grade literacy.

“I had never taught fifth grade, but I had a fifth-grader at the time,” she said. “I didn’t know if that was really for me, but needing a job, I took a job. I fell in love with that job as well. I taught with an amazing partner and had some support from Ms. Haywood.”

After two years of teaching fifth grade, Brantley was moved to first grade. This fall, she will teach kindergarten.

“With all the places I’ve gone, I’ve learned so many tips and tricks,” Brantley said. “I’ve worked with many awesome people, and I’ve realized that kids are kids. They just want you to teach them. They want you to love them. They just want you to believe in them. They just want you to support them, no matter if they are 5 or they are 12, headed to middle school. Kids are just kids, and I’ve loved every grade I’ve taught.”

Haywood said she’d love to be able to clone the atmosphere of Brantley’s classroom.

“What stands out when you see Stacey Brantley in her classroom, or as they say, when I’m spying and I’m walking through the hall, and I stop and listen and I look at the kids and see the interaction … it’s the culture and the climate that she creates in the classroom.

“If I could just clone that and spread it through my building, it would be a place where every child and every parent would want to enter the doors of Murrell Taylor Elementary. It’s genuine, and when you walk in, you feel a part of this classroom. It’s welcoming. The kids know she loves them. It’s something you want your personal children to experience.”

Haywood relayed a story about Brantley working with one particular student this past year.

“There was a special little baby this year that we had to move,” Haywood said. “He was just not successful. He comes from a struggling home life. If I had left him in the place he was … that teacher was a good teacher, but she wasn’t for him.

“When he went into Ms. Brantley’s room, he began to thrive. He started growing academically and socially. He loves her. Where he was destroying classrooms, he’s becoming a leader in hers because of the culture that she creates.”

Brantley earned her master’s degree from ASU in curriculum and instruction while living in St. Louis. She said she has no desire to become an administrator.

“I went back and forth,” she said. “Am I going to get something that keeps me in the classroom or get something that is going to open the door to step out of the classroom? I just couldn’t see myself stepping out of the classroom and working with mostly adults. My passion is working with those kids. I just did curriculum and instruction. That would strengthen my knowledge of curriculum and keep me right there with the kids, so that is where I see myself.

“I feel like I’m really called to walk beside these kids, and [Haywood] may be called to walk beside her teachers. It’s a different mindset. She has to support us so we can support [the students].”

Brantley has had her share of tough times outside of the classroom during her teaching career. Her mother, who was her inspiration for becoming a teacher, died in September 2015. Then after Brantley’s youngest child, Jacie, was born in June 2016, Brantley discovered a health problem of her own.

“The baby would not nurse like a normal baby should,” Brantley said. “It was probably just a clogged milk duct. I thought, ‘It will pass, and it will be fine.’”

Brantley went for a checkup with her obstetrician eight weeks after Jacie was born. She said her doctor was concerned, and she had a mammogram during the first week of school in August 2016.

“They said, ‘You need to do a biopsy. You’ve got cancer,’” Brantley said. “I said, ‘No, I have an 8-week-old baby.’”

But Brantley was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer.

“It was just unbelievable,” she said. “No breast cancer runs in my family. I had an 8-week-old baby to take care of, and I have three girls. Why would the good Lord give me three daughters and breast cancer all at the same time? I don’t know, but he did.”

Brantley said she hit the ground running with treatments and teaching at Murrell Taylor. She went through 20 rounds of chemotherapy and 33 rounds of radiation treatments.

“I taught first grade the whole time,” she said. “If you want to know how it affected my school life, it was a great experience for them. Very quickly, all my hair fell out. By mid-September, I had zero hair, and our kids care a lot about their hair. They care a lot about their physical appearance. So I came to school and realized a wig wasn’t for me. A hat wasn’t for me. I did a lot of bandanas. When it got hot, I just did nothing.”

Brantley said students asked her why she wasn’t covering her head.

“This is how God made me right now, and this is what we’ve got to go through with,” she said she told them.

Each morning at Murrell Taylor, a chant is recited over the intercom — “I love myself; I believe in myself; I’m proud of myself; I’m a genius.”

“Every day we’d chant that,” Brantley said. “When I say, ‘I love myself,’ this is just me loving myself. It’s going to be OK. No one else has to understand. It’s my walk, and it’s OK.

“[The students] were like, ‘I love your hair, too, Mrs. Brantley.’”

Brantley only missed days, normally once a week, for chemotherapy during the 2016-17 school year. Toward the end of the school year, she had a double mastectomy with reconstruction.

“Everything is good,” she said. “I’ve been good to go ever since. I get full scans every six months with all the blood work. My baby is 2 now. They say she probably saved my life. She’s a little miracle to us.”

Jacie is the daughter of Stacey and her husband, Barry. Stacey has two older daughters, Cadence Counts, 14; and Averie Counts, 11.

Brantley said she can see herself teaching at Murrell Taylor for a long time.

“I will probably retire here from Murrell Taylor Elementary if it’s my choice,” she said. “I’ll finish my days right here. I’ll teach to the end.”

Staff writer Mark Buffalo can be reached at (501) 399-3676 or mbuffalo@arkansasonline.com.

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