Top history teacher introduces Vinton-Shellsburg students to 'ordinary people who did extraordinary things'

Vinton-Shellsburg High's Kelly Steffen named Iowa's History Teacher of the Year

Kelly Steffen laughs with her students while posing for a photo at her desk on Oct. 21, 2019. The Iowa Department of Edu
Kelly Steffen laughs with her students while posing for a photo at her desk on Oct. 21, 2019. The Iowa Department of Education named Steffen, a teacher at Vinton-Shellsburg High School, Iowa’s History Teacher of the Year. (Molly Duffy/The Gazette)

VINTON — For Kelly Steffen, Iowa’s History Teacher of the Year, the past holds endless lessons for her students at Vinton-Shellsburg High School.

“History does so much to inform us on how to make decisions today,” Steffen, 48, said. “It’s always changing based on new research, and teaching as a whole is always changing. You’re never going to get bored at this job.”

The Iowa Department of Education and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History named Steffen the state’s History Teacher of the Year. In a news release last week, the department said Steffen keeps her students engaged by making her content relevant to young people today.

“It’s ordinary people who did extraordinary things,” she said, noting a unit on the American civil rights movement is her favorite to teach. “You had high school students who were arguing for their civil rights — which is a great connections for these guys who think, ‘I have no voice.’ It’s proof they do have a voice.”

A teacher in the Vinton-Shellsburg Community School District for almost 20 years, Steffen teaches American history, world history, world religions, American humanities and a college-level U.S. history course.

A Cedar Rapids native who graduated from Jefferson High School, Steffen received her bachelor’s degree from Loras College and a master’s from Ashland University.

Steffen said she has been blessed to work with past and present students, inspiring colleagues and supportive administrators.


“Kelly cares about the kids and is always trying something different, new and creative,” Vinton-Shellsburg High School Principal Matt Kingsbury said, adding Steffen spends many summers visiting places like the site of the Battle of Gettysburg and bringing new knowledge into her classroom. “She is someone the staff looks up to, and she’s a great role model not only for our staff but for all students.”

Students in her world history class on Monday said they enjoy her classes because she seems invested in building relationships with each of them.

“She cares about every one of her students,” Lauren Upmeyer, 17, said. “She’s willing to help us at any time, and she will go out of her way to help us.”

Her understanding of her students enhances academic content, Cameron Karr, 17, added.

“She personalizes her lessons to us as students,” he said. “It’s not just spitting facts at us the whole time.”

Steffen, who teaches nearly all of Vinton-Shellsburg High’s 450-student body before they graduate, said working with teenagers as they navigate school and other parts of their lives has been rewarding.

“There’s a lot of important lessons in life, and it’s what we take away from them that’s so important,” she said. “That’s what history teaches us, but personally that’s what we have to keep in mind too.”

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