What makes a great teacher? What connects student and instructor, no matter the age, race, or gender of either? 

Five-year-old Long Early Learning Center student Mehki Wiliams answered the question in early May when he walked into Tom Stoneroad’s classroom. Williams talked about the interesting things Stoneroad does in his class, including planting vegetables in an indoor planter, which has stoked the young student’s interest in farming. They talked about how students celebrate milestones in Stoneroad’s classroom. And they talked about some of the new toys the teacher had purchased.

Stoneroad’s actions with Williams at that moment answered the question of what has made Stoneroad such an outstanding teacher in only five years on the job. 

He listens.
He makes learning fun.
He celebrates victories.
He takes an interest in his students.

Those accomplishments and more led to Stoneroad’s selection as AISD Elementary Teacher of the Year at the AEF’s annual Teachers in the Limelight Celebration (TLC) in April. 

Stoneroad, 52, spent 23 years in the United States Air Force before retiring in 2012. He worked with therapy dogs in AISD, among other entities in Abilene, for a few years before returning to school. He worked as a substitute teacher in AISD schools from 2014-18 and earned his undergraduate degree in early childhood education from McMurry University in 2018. After graduation, he decided he could make a difference in the lives of children by teaching in an elementary school.

Instead, he got a call from former Long ELC Director Jenny Putnam, asking if he wanted a job. Stoneroad didn’t hesitate to take it, no matter that he wouldn’t be working on an elementary school campus. In only five years, Stoneroad’s presence has impacted students, families, and staff at Long ELC.

In her letter of recommendation to the Abilene Education Foundation (AEF), nominating Stoneroad for the Edwin and Agnes Jennings Teaching Excellence Award for Elementary Teacher of the Year, AISD Director of Early Childhood Julie Wilson wrote, “Tom Stoneroad is innovative, inspirational, and influential. He is an educator who excels in many areas of education and service. He has made a great impact inside and outside the classroom for students, families, and staff at Long. Mr. Tom has a kind spirit and joyful demeanor and is determined to ensure all students are successful. The students and families know they are deeply cared for, respected, and accepted just as they are.”

That he would be standing on the stage accepting a Teacher of the Year award in 2024 probably never entered Stoneroad’s mind as he worked his way to the rank of Master Sergeant in the Air Force while serving in locales across the globe. While in the military, he directed the efforts of more than 600 personnel to support flight operations and other missions, managed multi-million-dollar budgets, and was in charge of military equipment worth billions of dollars.

Today he teaches his students foundational skills and behaviors as they learn to count, read, and recite the alphabet. To grow tomatoes and jalapenos in the small garden he has set up in his classroom. To learn how to share toys. To learn to be efficient with their time. And to accomplish daily and weekly goals.

Moving from the military to the classroom hasn’t changed Stoneroad’s focus. The tenets he lived by in the Air Force are how he evaluates himself as a teacher.

“Each week, I ask myself, ‘Did I complete my goals? Am I heading in the right direction? Am I leading these kids where they need to go? How are they learning?’ ” Stoneroad said. “I think about what I might be doing wrong because I know they (the students) aren’t doing anything wrong. If I don’t teach them correctly, how will they learn?”

Stoneroad credits his teaching partner, Stephani Thomason, for her work in the classroom, saying that without her, “There’s no way I could do this. She does an amazing job.”

In the Air Force, Stoneroad said, a good day meant a successful end to a mission. It’s similar in a classroom at Long ELC.

“If the kids go home safely every day, that’s a good day,” he said. “Whether we finish everything or not … if they’re safe, that’s the bottom line. I want them to get home better than when they arrived in the morning, and I want their parents to see them that way. I want their parents to know about their successes, so when we accomplish a goal or complete a task we celebrate.

“My job is to protect these children,” Stoneroad said. “I felt the same way about the Airmen I led in the Air Force. My job was to earn their trust and establish a family atmosphere. And that – aside from teaching these children and ensuring they are prepared to leave my classroom – is my mission at Long. I think about how I can get through to a child. I tried hard to figure out how to get through to Mehki last year. Then I learned that he liked farming and building; that was the key to reaching him.”

He listened. He took an interest in one of his students. And he made it fun.

Only a few years into his second career, Stoneroad has answered the question about what makes a great teacher.