A happy deception: Fairfield teacher lured into ceremony to win top Ohio school honor

Veteran Fairfield Schools teacher Sandi Stegman, center, is flanked by Ohio Department of Education committee officials during her recent, surprise ceremony at Central Elementary revealing she has won a top Ohio schools award. Stegman, 70, is a 20-year veteran teacher and a former IBM computer engineer who found her true calling in life later as a teacher. (Contributed Photo\Journal-News)

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Veteran Fairfield Schools teacher Sandi Stegman, center, is flanked by Ohio Department of Education committee officials during her recent, surprise ceremony at Central Elementary revealing she has won a top Ohio schools award. Stegman, 70, is a 20-year veteran teacher and a former IBM computer engineer who found her true calling in life later as a teacher. (Contributed Photo\Journal-News)

A veteran Fairfield Schools teacher was lied to by her principal and colleagues recently but for good cause.

Her co-workers had recently conspired against Central Elementary fifth grade teacher Sandi Stegman to surprise her with news she is one of only five in Ohio schools to win the state’s annual TORCH award for demonstrating character and heart in classroom teaching.

The 70-year-old Stegman was lured into what she thought was a routine staff meeting in Central’s gym, only to be shocked to see representatives from the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) there along with festive declarations and confetti poppers celebrating her earning the honor.

Anthony Coy-Gonzalez, the 2021 Ohio Teacher of the Year and a member of the ODE’s recognition selection committee, told Stegman: “This award is presented to teachers in Ohio who represent character and heart.”

“The recipients are the heartbeat of the school and who strive to support each and every child. They go above and beyond and are invested in their communities,” said Coy-Gonzalez.

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“Nominations came from all across the state from students, parents, administrators, fellow colleagues and more (but only) five are selected for this prestigious award.”

Central Elementary Principal Karrie Gallo, who nominated Stegman and described the former computer engineer for IBM employee, who came to a teaching career later in life, as having thrived despite a “challenging childhood.”

“She was an orphan who bounced from foster home to foster home. So many odds were against her, but she refused to back down. She persevered through grade school and worked her way through college. She became a computer engineer,” wrote Gallo in her nomination letter to ODE officials.

Later, “she found her calling for teaching - to work in a school in a district with diversity, English learners, and poverty. If any of her students have a need she does everything she can to provide for them. She is no stranger to bringing in hair products for young ladies, food for hungry children, or finding folks to be a male role model to support young men. She is a leader in Fairfield for diversity, equity, and inclusion work.”

Gallo added Stegman also “helps new teachers navigate this challenging profession, sharing her motivational mantra: It’s hard to lead with heart.”

Stegman, a 20-year veteran instructor with Fairfield, said her challenging background prepared her in ways to better help young students overcome their obstacles.

“My outcome could have been so different I could have been a statistic,” she said.

“I am a 70 year old kid, so when I see these kids, I see me. I feel as though I have a lot to give back. If not for the many teachers who supported me, I wouldn’t be who I am today. As a teacher I feel that it’s not a job. It’s a ministry,” she said.

And she shared some advice with her teacher colleagues there to celebrate her award.

“As teachers don’t ever think you can’t save one. It only takes one. If you save one, they may save two. I think I have the greatest job in the world,” said Stegman.

Fairfield Superintendent Billy Smith said “no one can convince me there is anyone in the state who is more deserving of this award than Sandi.”

“She is truly one in a million. Over the years, she has had a positive impact on thousands of students and staff members,” said Smith.

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