Becky Thiegs, Founder of Stage of Life, on the Importance of Stories and Teaching
Becky earned her Masters of Education from the University of Minnesota and has taught for 14 years in a variety of urban and rural settings. She has taught English, language arts, creative writing and public speaking, and has worked as a curriculum consultant for McDaniel College. We spoke to Becky about her experiences as a teacher and the importance of a website like Stage of Life.
Teach.com: When did you know you wanted to teach? What inspired you?
Becky Thiegs: I don’t know if I knew I wanted to become a teacher before I became one. I began as a psychology major and realized that I loved writing the papers. I changed my major to English and fell in love with literature and writing. After I graduated with my BA in English, my husband suggested becoming an English teacher in an offhand way. He was an admissions recruiter at the University of Minnesota and had to feature the College of Education for an education fair. I was getting ready to move to London on a six-month work visa, and Eric called me and read the English education class descriptions to me. After every class description I said, “That sounds like a fun class.”
I applied for the Master of English Education program about one month before I moved to London and was accepted. I’m not sure it was an inspiration that got me into teaching, but I think every single student I have ever taught would say that inspiration and passion are two things that guide my teaching. I pride myself on giving my students more than English in my classroom. We learn about life. Maybe my roundabout path gave me different experiences to share. What helps me remain in the ever-changing world of teaching is the inspiration that my students give me every single day.
How has earning your Master of Education benefitted your career?
I’m not sure, actually, because I finished my master's after only teaching for a year and a half. I guess having the extra classes in the beginning of my career made me more aware of some of the latest educational philosophy and studies. I also LOVED my thesis work on the importance of experiential learning in education. I think teaching from experience and not from a textbook has really been a guide for me in my educational philosophy.
How has working as a curriculum consultant, with the actual development of curricula, informed your own teaching methods?
My experience working with Lisa Breslin and Jennifer Walker at McDaniel College on the Summer Academic Enrichment Program was one of the BEST experiences I have had as a teacher. What I loved most about helping write the language arts component was how creative and freeing it felt. Lisa and Jen wanted to create a dynamic curriculum that would be applicable to the students and open their eyes to not only reading and writing techniques, but to the world around them. While we created the SAEP language arts curriculum, we continually asked ourselves and each other, “Will this challenge them?”; “Will they be blown away by this?”; “Will we captivate them and shape how they view themselves and the world?” I think the perspective switch for me was knowing that curriculum is changeable based on your students. It has to be something that can be tailored to whoever walks in your classroom.
Can you talk bit about how Stage of Life came about, and how you saw the need for such a unique online community?
Stage of Life was a brainstorm from my husband, Eric. After we shaped our ideas, we realized that we wanted to change the world one story at a time. I see the life-changing power of storytelling in my students. I think for me, one of the greatest gifts I can give my students is to show them the power of writing. The best way to do that is to make it real. If they only hand papers to me and never have a real world audience, they don’t see where their words can take them. Eric and I want to provide a place where “real world writing” occurs and encourage teachers to get their students’ writing out of the classroom. It means something more to win a national writing contest or to get feedback from peers and adults that don’t really know you than to just hand in a paper to a teacher. We can’t truly connect to each other if we only write for a grade.
What kind of feedback have you gotten from readers? How about your writers? What’s it like for them to have a place to share their experiences?
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. One of the biggest reasons is that everything we offer is FREE: blogging, archiving, writing contests and free teaching resources. Education funding has been slashed in so many states, and it is nice to know there are great places to find amazing real world opportunities for students that cost NOTHING. Our core writing editors are fantastic and devoted people who write from their hearts and love posting their work. And it’s awesome to get a comment from someone I have never met who was moved or touched by something I wrote. I think every contributing editor has experienced that same thing over and over again. Students who win the monthly National Writing Contest usually enter again and again, and we see them show up often on the site.
Stage of Life has a lot of educational resources for teachers. How are those materials compiled, and how does the site work to support teachers?
One of our biggest initiatives for the upcoming school year is to provide teachers with even more materials. We run a monthly National Writing Contest on thought provoking topics, from poetry to Transcendentalism to describing your hero to teen pregnancy. With each contest, we provide links to additional resources. We archive the contests with all the materials and use the winning essays and the runners-up as “mentor texts” for teachers to use as great examples of student writing. Our goal is to set up free lesson plans with each month’s contest and compile premium lesson plans and packages with the theme of “changing the world, one story at a time.”