At 17, teaching children was the last thing on Stephanie Duff's mind.
Back then, her ambitions leaned towards sports medicine and rehabilitation, far away from the world of classrooms and schoolyards. "I wasn't really a fan of children," she says with a laugh.
After high school, Duff, now an OISE alum, decided to take a year off. She found herself working at her church’s children’s ministry, where she discovered a newfound joy in interacting with kids. This experience inspired her to pursue a college degree in Early Childhood Education, solidifying her passion for nurturing young minds.
Today, Duff is an elementary school teacher, the author of a children’s book series, and a dedicated lifelong learner—always striving to enhance her skills to better support families. It’s this passion that brought her to OISE, where she pursued a part-time Master of Education in Developmental Psychology and Education while teaching full-time at the Peel District School Board.
“After teaching for a few years, I felt like there was still a lot to learn, and I wanted to stay current to make my classroom a better place,” says Duff.
As an elementary school teacher, Duff was drawn to the Developmental Psychology Education program because she wanted to learn more about how young developing brains work. At OISE, she gained a deep understanding of the significance of executive functions—the processes that enable individuals to manage their thoughts, actions, and emotions effectively—on learning.
"That was gold for me," Duff says.
Recognizing how executive function can be inhibited by factors such as hunger or emotional distress, Duff now places a priority on her students' emotional well-being. This perspective, combined with her emphasis on teaching self-regulation skills, shapes her approach to education—creating a supportive environment where each child can thrive.
During her studies, Duff travelled to OISE two nights a week and completed courses online. Balancing work and school had its challenges, but the supportive environment at OISE, with its small class sizes and understanding instructors, made this juggling act not only manageable but enriching. Duff found immense value in attending classes and immediately applying the concepts she learned the next day, which reinforced her learning and deepened her understanding.
A standout memory was realizing that Cathy Marks Krpan, Associate Professor in the Department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning, was the author of the book that her school was discussing.
"I was like, ‘I know her! She’s my professor at OISE, and she’s teaching me how to teach math,” says Duff. “What I learned from Marks Krpan really stuck with me. Her approach is non-traditional. She taught me about number conversations and playing games to build number sense in students."
Besides teaching her innovative methods for teaching math, Marks Kpran also inspired Duff's creativity.
Shortly before graduating from OISE, Duff developed a chronic illness, leading her to write blog posts about her dreams and creative ideas. One day she found herself writing in detail about a Black girl named Rayne, intricately describing her appearance and personality.
With the encouragement of family and friends, she wrote and released Me and My Hair in 2020, the first book of The Rayne Project – a series created to help Black girls between the ages of 6 and 12 embrace their identity.
“I want Black girls to be seen and feel loved. As a Black woman myself, I know what it is like growing up and feeling like my hair or skin was a problem,” says Duff.
“I wanted to help them at a young age to ensure that the challenges wouldn't be as traumatic or frustrating in their later years due to the absence of earlier interventions."
Just as she never imagined becoming a teacher, Duff never envisioned herself as an author until positive feedback on her written assignments from Marks Krpan and another OISE instructor motivated her to explore this new path.
"The little things they said—they probably didn’t even know how impactful it was when they said it. But it's those things that I referred to when I took that crazy leap of faith to write Me and My Hair," she says.
Reflecting on her journey, Duff says that more than anything else, her OISE experience instilled in her a lifelong love of learning and a desire to share that knowledge with others.
Today, she mentors new teachers, serves as the co-chair of her school's kindergarten team, and, last year, she published My Big Dream, the second book of the Rayne Project. Duff also dreams of experimenting with other forms of media to spread her message widely to young Black girls.
"Everyone has their thing and teaching is mine — and writing stories is just another way to educate. I teach when I’m paid to do it and when I’m not paid to do it. I love it. I absolutely love it."