Lauren Stephenson has always loved school.
"I loved school. I loved my teachers. I was probably a teacher's pet, did whatever they wanted me to do," she said. "I loved learning. I am kind of nerdy like that."
When the special education teacher was still in high school she participated in a work study program at her local elementary school and developed an affinity for special education.
"I got to see what that was like and really fell in love with that," she said.
Stephenson was named teacher of the year at Riverview Elementary School last spring and during the Nov. 7 Dawson County Board of Education meeting, she found out she had been named system-wide teacher of the year as well.
"My hands were shaking," she said. "I was so nervous all day long because I don't like big surprises like that."
When principals from the other Dawson County schools were describing their teachers of the year, Stephenson said she kept thinking each teacher sounded really awesome and that they should win.
"All the other six people were the best at their school that year," Stephenson said.
But when she found out she was the winner, she was thrilled.
"It feels really good," she said. "I feel proud to represent our school because we have not had a system teacher to come from our school yet."
Stephenson has now made history for Riverview Elementary, a place she has been since it first opened its doors in 2010.
She graduated from what was then North Georgia College & State University in 2009 with a Bachelor's of Science in early childhood education and special education, as valedictorian no less.
However, like most of the other 89 graduates in her class, she struggled to find a job.
It was the middle of the economic crash and Riverview sat empty, waiting for the previously expected influx of people and students.
Stephenson emailed Principal Julia Mashburn on a regular basis, hoping to find a spot on the staff when the time came.
Two weeks before school began, she was offered a paraprofessional position and took it so she could at least, literally, get her foot in the door.
Now, seven years later, Stephenson handles the case load of 13 special education students and spends her days teaching kindergarten through second graders who have learning disabilities of some kind.
"They have emotional or behavioral disabilities," she said. "They have autism, they have dyslexia, so school is not easy for them."
Though it is demanding, she has not shied away from the challenge of helping these kids succeed.
"I love being creative and doing something different every day. It's definitely not mundane. I love working with kids and they are so positive and impressionable," Stephenson said. "I think it's a pretty high calling to be able to be the one to lead them every day."
In any given class she will have up to eight students in the room who are on different grade levels or different levels within a grade.
In the mornings she teaches math to students who are at all different stages.
"Some need a little extra help, some need a lot of one-on-one," she said.
Stephenson adapts to ensure her students do as well, and takes the small victories that come along the way.
"There's small victories every day and we get to celebrate those a little bit more frequently than with typical kids. Things will come easy to them but nothing really comes easy to our kids," she said.
Beyond instruction, there are Individual Education Plans to develop, strategies for reaching goals, government regulations and paperwork.
"The hardest part is trying to keep your focus on ‘What is the purpose? What am I doing this for?' It's for the kids. It's to teach them as much as we can...It's a lot, but it is good.
"Things are stressful at times, but I think generally we feel very supported and understood," she said.
Stephenson is grateful for her place at Riverview.
"I think our school is a really great school," she said. "It's a positive place to be. I think the kids really feel that. I think all the teachers and staff feel that."
"Lauren has the unique ability to fit with any configuration of students or adults," said Mashburn. "She willingly adapts to any given situation so that she can find the best way to reach her students. She is able to strike a perfect balance of holding her students to high expectations for both achievement and behavior, while nurturing them with genuine love, compassion and respect."
Stephenson is helping make Riverview a place that the students will love the way that she loved school. She believes that part of connecting with each child is to just give them a clean slate.
"Not taking into consideration what other teachers have told you from last year, what you knew from last year," she said. "I have got several who have some pretty extreme emotional needs and behavioral needs so I think just giving them grace every day."
After winning system-wide teacher, Stephenson said she got flowers, food and even a cardboard crown. Her husband told her they can't lose momentum and wanted to know what's next.
Her full schedule includes a two-year-old of her own and the hours she puts in outside of the classroom in leadership roles.
Stephenson serves as the deaf and hard of hearing lead teacher for the county and on the Principal and Teacher Leadership network as a part of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. She is also on the board of directors for ConnectAbility, an organization committed to children and adults with disabilities. And she mentors student teachers on the side.
When she isn't working in any of these capacities, she and her husband are also members of a band-Radford Windham & Step Back Cadillac. She sings and plays bass guitar, he plays electric guitar and the group was recently voted best musical act in Dahlonega.
Stephenson seems content in her roles and is grateful for the recognition.
"Sometimes, especially in special ed, you don't feel like a real teacher," she said. "You are just a helper or you are doing your own thing over here. So to feel like not only am I working hard, but other people see that."