Although they always make time for their students, Shelby County Teachers of the Year Natasha Medford, an eighth-grade science teacher at Ridgeway Middle School, and Emily Taubken, a third-grade teacher at Kingsbury Elementary School, are a little hard to pin down for something as extra-curricular as talking about themselves. We met Emily at the Memphis Teacher Residency offices, where she was grading into the evening and meeting with members of her MTR cohort. When we caught up with Natasha, she was preparing to welcome parents to an after-school registration event and then go home and pack for a weekend in Chicago … to fulfill her obligations as an officer in the U.S. Army Reserves. Neither one of these incredible educators initially pursued teaching as a career, but both have found themselves called to and connected with the students of Shelby County Schools.
Where were you born and what was your upbringing like?
Natasha: I grew up in a small town called Washington, GA — it’s actually ranked one of the most historic places in Georgia. My graduating class was like 92 people. I was a first-generation graduate, the first person in my family to get my bachelor’s. My husband’s from Memphis, so after he got out of the military, we decided to move here. I drove 10 hours to make it to the job fair, and I’ve been here ever since.
Emily: I was born here in Memphis. I went to Houston High School and then Millsaps College. I got a Fulbright grant to do a research project and teach English in Bangladesh. I think that’s actually one of the things that shaped my teaching career the most, just learning how to be flexible and adaptive, and have a wider lens for what education can look like and how to be responsive to challenges.
When did you first become interested in teaching?
Natasha: My sophomore year of college. I actually was a nursing major. I went against my mother; she said, “You’re not going to do that; you ought to be a teacher.” It was the first day of clinical, and I realized I didn’t have the stomach for nursing, so I decided I would rather help people in a different way.
Emily: I said there were two things I would never do: One, come back to Memphis, and two, be a teacher. But I was working for a nonprofit in Memphis in the summers during college, and I noticed that a lot of the people who were in high school or adults really struggled with reading, and they articulated that that’s something they didn’t feel like they had access to. I never really considered that equal education wasn’t available for people. When I went back to college, I decided that I really wanted to participate in making that equitable for everybody.
What was the moment like when you found out you had been honored as Teacher of the Year?
Natasha: I was surprised. I’m sure everybody could see it on my face. It was overwhelming, and I was emotional. You know, we don’t do things for recognition, we just do things because this is the job that we signed up to do. I just want to ensure that, if nothing else, my students hear a positive word every day, that they have somebody who wants to support them and contribute to their dream.
Emily: I was truly shocked. To be honest, I just thought that they were there to see what was happening in a classroom, so I kept teaching. I really appreciated Superintendent Hopson coming personally and talking to my students. I was really humbled and really honored.
How did your students react to your recognition?
Natasha: They were like, “We knew it was you when they started calling out the characteristics!” I work hard to try to be a role model for them. They think I’m a cool teacher, but I’m really not. I just understand that you give respect to get it, and it’s easier to build a relationship with you than burn a bridge with you. I’m just trying to gain their trust and build a positive relationship, so that they have somebody that they can come to.
Emily: They were mostly really excited to see themselves on TV, but they were really excited that someone came to talk to them about their class. It spurred on some good conversations about why we’re here and what’s the point of our classroom. A thing we talk about a lot is that I’m not the only teacher in the classroom; everybody has something to teach and can contribute to helping others learn, and they really do take that to heart. They see themselves as teachers, too.
What do you see as the opportunities Memphis has in its public schools?
Natasha: I teach physical science. We also have a STEM focus, so we do a lot of competitions. I’m really big on exposure, making Memphis students have experiences that they otherwise wouldn’t have access to. And I try to give them little pieces of things that I’ve learned along the way and just try to help them to realize there’s a world outside Memphis, TN. Aspire bigger than what you see. For some of them, it’s kind of hard, based on the environments that they come from, but I just want them to know that there’s a world outside of this state, this city.
Emily: I love the community feel, and I love that you have a convergence of people tackling different areas of life in our city. In some ways, schools can be kind of isolating in that you’re there a lot and really invested in where you are, but it’s really important to remember that we’re just one part of efforts to serve communities and participate in our city. I really am excited, because I feel like education is starting to gain a lot of momentum here. Ideas about curriculum, about learners, about learning, are really starting to gain a lot of depth. I really do think Memphis is on the cusp of breaking through a lot of the challenges we’ve had in education.
What is your biggest motivation?
Natasha: I think my biggest motivation would be my background experiences, just where I came from, looking at how I grew up in a small town where a working-class job is kind of a dead end. I used that as a focus. I grew up without a lot of things, and I want to pour into other people and make sure that children know that they have these avenues. There were a lot of things that I didn’t know were open to me, growing up in a small town. It’s important to have people who reach back and say, “Let me show you how this is done.”
Emily: My biggest motivation is the bigger picture that if every student really does have access to a quality teacher, kindergarten through 12th grade, that it would have a significant positive effect on our community at large. I really do believe in the power of education and specifically public schools. I think that our country has struggled to provide quality preparation for teachers, and there are just a million obstacles when you get into the classroom, especially if you’re in an under-resourced school. My motivation is knowing that I can participate and play a part in bringing equitable, quality education to communities that are currently lacking that but very deserving of it.
How do you like to spend your time off?
Natasha: I’m a captain in the Army Reserves, so I spend the better part of my time outside of work working on another job. I spend time with my family. I enjoy swimming, reading and just hanging with friends.
Emily: I really enjoy reading; that’s my number one hobby. I also love photography and traveling. As hard as I work in teaching I really do like to use other parts of my brain, too.
Where do you take guests in Memphis?
Natasha: I like to take them to the Bass Pro Shop at the Pyramid, taking them downtown to the river and walking around showing them the riverboats.
Emily: The Stax Museum is usually top of the list when I have out-of-town people. We have a lot of great things, but my favorite feel of Memphis is the music history, and I think that articulates the nature of our city pretty well.
What is your best advice?
Natasha: Never give up. Wake up every day with a goal in mind, just having something that drives you. Make sure that you set a goal and see it through.
Emily: Find something that combines what you’re excited about and what you’re gifted in, and find a way to make that contribute to a bigger picture.
What are three everyday things you can’t live without?
Natasha: Chocolate candy — I don’t drink coffee, so chocolate is important. The news — I’m really big on reading current events. And email — I can’t stand to have a million emails, so I have to check email every hour on the hour.
Emily: Coffee, books and definitely my golden retriever, Mavis.
Thank you, Natasha and Emily, for sharing your stories and for serving Memphis’ children and thus our city’s future so well — you are an inspiration!
And thank you to Mary Kate Steele for these beautiful photos.
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