Lifelong Connections: Stephen Byrd

A special education teacher, Jenna Mason ’16 writes about one of her Elon mentors, Associate Professor of Education Stephen Byrd, and how he has impacted her professional and personal life.

Associate Professor of Education Stephen Byrd is passionate about special education and helping children and adolescents with disabilities. He has mentored countless students, including several Lumen Prize winners, as they work to become compassionate special education teachers.

Associate Professor of Education Stephen Byrd

By Jenna Mason ’16

Professors of education have the unique challenge of also acting as role models for their students. As a professor to emerging teachers, your students are your critics and mentees. They observe your practice and evaluate what they hope to emulate in their own teaching. So much of my pedagogy today is rooted in not only the academic learning from Elon, but the example set by professors in the Dr. Jo Watts Williams School of Education. And no other professor had a stronger influence on me than Stephen Byrd.

At its core, teaching is about relationships. From the first day I met Dr. Byrd, he sought not to learn about each student as a learner, but as a person. He always asked thoughtful questions and listened deeply. I think of my time in his classes as working and learning with Dr. Byrd, as he modeled the importance of entering all spaces as a lifelong learner with something to gain from each and every student. A highlight of my time at Elon was when he invited my entire cohort to his home to decorate gingerbread houses with his family. He cares deeply about building relationships that extend beyond the classroom walls, which fosters a sense of trust and style of learning that is unmatched.

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As a rising senior, I went to Dr. Byrd with a challenge regarding the structure of my student teaching as a dual major. Within 24 hours, he had reached out to personal contacts to create an individualized model that would allow me to work in a k-12 school and cross divisions for student teaching. Years later, I regularly reference not only my learning from student teaching, but how this moment with Dr. Byrd illustrates what I try to do every day as a teacher. He listened, validated, advocated for his student’s needs and created a modified but effective program.

I frequently seek out Dr. Byrd’s advice during academic and professional changes in my life. We recently connected in person for the first time since graduation. What I expected to be a quick catch-up was instead hours of discussion around educating in a post-pandemic world. I felt the same awe in this conversation at 29 as I did in his classroom at 19 — in his wisdom and experience, he was asking me what I thought.

Many times I wished I’d had Dr. Byrd as a teacher when I was younger, because I think I would have felt differently about school. The way he makes students feel safe, heard and proud is unwavering. I am exceedingly grateful that so many students in our world will have teachers who learned the critical importance of relationship building, humility and listening from Dr. Byrd.

Jenna Mason '16A Fulbright scholar, Jenna Mason ’16 received a master’s degree in independent school leadership from the Klingenstein Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College. She teaches lower school special education at Eagle Hill School in Greenwich, Connecticut.