Stephanie Donnis, a teacher assistant (TA) at Druid Hills Academy, was reading the book Abuela with her second-grade class. They were discussing what it would be like if they could fly like the grandmother in the book.
"They gave me great answers, but one boy raised his hand and said, 'I would see shootings,'" Donnis said. "That's what was on his mind. It opened an opportunity, and the whole class talked about peaceful ways to solve problems, but that's been heavy on my heart."
Donnis cares about everything that affects her students. In her ninth year as a TA – all of them at Druid Hills – she is quick to say how much she loves them, and she always goes the extra mile, like bringing books from the public library, so her students can choose from a larger assortment. It is one of many reasons she is the Central 1 Learning Community Teacher Assistant of the Year for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
"Brave, determined, energetic and impactful are words that describe Ms. Donnis, our 'enforcer,'" said Dr. Carla Mathis, principal at Druid Hills. "Ms. Donnis has high expectations and so much love for all of our students. Yes, she assists second grade and facilitates small groups, but she also is a family advocate. She does home visits and connects with our partners to help our families help our students succeed. We're blessed to have her."
Donnis lived in a number of states growing up and said the experience helped her learn to adapt. She eventually put down roots in Charlotte, where she's lived for more than 40 years. While her career was with the media, she spent her spare time in education as a volunteer at Montclaire Elementary.
"I worked in the media world for a long time, but I just felt, 'What am I achieving? How am I helping the world?' and I always wanted to teach," Donnis said. "I decided to take a gigantic leap and walk away from making a lot of money and security, and I applied at CMS. I got hired at Druid, and that's my home – Druid is my home."
Donnis works with two teachers, Kristina Rice and Edward Ferguson, and said they are phenomenal and loved by the children. She said building relationships is crucial in her job and an ability she had when she walked in the door.
"I had 30 years in building relationships, and that's what it took – forging relationships with my scholars," Donnis said. "Being a TA under the tutelage of Ms. Rice, she put me in small groups, gave me guidance and let me run with that. It was an instant love affair."
Donnis once served as a substitute for a fourth-grade class, but she said her heart is with the younger set.
"I love second grade," she said. "I feel like their brains are really on fire, thinking, exploring and becoming somewhat independent thinkers. Second-graders are very curious. It's a sweet spot for me."
Donnis said she thought she had no chance at becoming a finalist for Teacher Assistant of the Year and was shocked when the recognition was announced.
"I do this work because I love it, and it's nice to know the work means something," she said. "I just want people to know that Druid Hills is a fabulous school. That's important to me because serving a high-poverty population, we don't always get the accolades. It's very important for them to know that we have a great staff and smart scholars. We rock!"