Ashley Stephens’ passion is teaching young people how to be healthy and happy, and she does a pretty good job of walking the walk. While balancing the responsibilities of a high-energy, full-time job, being a dutiful mom and wife and staying fit, Ashley also has a zeal for experiencing life and making memories that last a lifetime, mostly outdoors in the fresh air and sunshine. Whether she’s cooking a flavorful meal at home, floating on the river with friends or whizzing through a city on a old-fashioned streetcar, Ashley makes the most of every moment. I should know — she’s one of my closest friends.
Our conversation about balance and spontaneity included recipes, traveling tips and why exercise in or near the water is always better.
WACOAN: Most people assume a physical education teacher is in tip-top shape all the time and has plenty of time for her own workouts too. That can’t be true all the time, right? Is finding time to stay in shape just as hard for you as anyone else?
Stephens: I haven’t been in tip-top shape since high school. I do the best I can, and I’m trying to find more time for myself as my kids get older and more independent. Right now, there are many days I don’t work out. Honestly, that’s more the norm, especially September to May.
WACOAN: What’s your favorite way to work out and de-stress from your day?
Stephens: After a long day at work, I really just want to sit in absolute quiet. I have learned that yoga makes me feel so good and refreshed. My perfect workout would be outdoor water aerobics right after school, all year long. I wish that was always possible. I love the water, especially after being on my feet all day. Being outside is always my preference.
WACOAN: From what I can tell, you have a highly varied workout routine — yoga, swimming, walking. How do you decide what to do each day and week? Is the variety part of how you stay interested and inspired?
Stephens: I do whatever I can based on the schedule of the day. I really enjoy classes, and sometimes that dictates the ‘when.’ I love variety and trying new things.
WACOAN: What kinds of activities do you like, besides the classes?
Stephens: I love to exercise where I can enjoy nature at the same time. When my kids were little, I would pack them in the stroller and walk the Cameron Park Zoo for hours. Now I walk to the lake from my house, and I really enjoy walking across the Lake Waco dam. Recently, I tried biking along the river trail, which was fun. Can you see the trend? Being in or near the water makes all exercise better!
WACOAN: Let’s talk about your job as a PE teacher. How long have you been at Hillcrest PDS Elementary Magnet School, and where did you teach before that?
Stephens: I taught for six years at Lake Air Middle School as an athletics and cheer coach and one year as sixth grade PE teacher at Lake Air Intermediate School. I took time off when my children were born, and for the past six years I have been the PE teacher at Hillcrest PDS.
WACOAN: Did you always know you wanted to teach PE? How did you decide this would be your life’s work?
Stephens: I have no idea, but it was a great decision whenever I made it! PE teachers get to directly impact kids but do not have the paperwork stress of classroom teachers. We have stress — and have to be ‘on’ 100 percent of our day — but it’s a different kind of stress, and I like it.
WACOAN: What’s the most interesting or fun day-to-day part of your job?
Stephens: Every age group is so different, pre-K to fifth grade. You have to change your technique to adapt to the age and maturity level of the students. We do lots of fun games and incentives for the little ones. We’re trying to get the older kids prepared for middle school and athletics, so the skills get harder, but we always keep it fun. My work partner and I created a really fun warmup to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles song ‘Shell Shocked.’ It incorporates lots of different stretches and aerobic activity. We lead the little kids, but we give the older kids an opportunity to lead the workout, and it’s neat to see them take charge and learn to be leaders.
WACOAN: Tell me about your students. In general, are they active kids, or do they take a lot of motivating? What tactics do you use to get kids excited about PE and moving their bodies?
Stephens: You have three types of students: athletes, movers and nonmovers. I try to cater to all types by offering choices and levels. I try never to put kids on the spot, and I want each type of kid to feel successful.
WACOAN: Childhood obesity is a serious health concern today. What do you think are the most important ways kids can take their health into their own hands?
Stephens: I think it is important to teach kids balance.
Balance in life is important. Balance on a plate is important. You need some protein, a veggie and a starch. It is OK to eat fattening foods but in moderation. Just keep your balance.
WACOAN: What are some of the ways you teach this in a fast-paced PE class?
Stephens: I like to do what I call ‘health commercials.’ At the end of class or when we need a break, I take that time to zero in on one important health topic. It might be proper calorie intake or the food groups. I give a quick presentation, and the kids can ask questions. Covering these things in smaller chunks holds their attention and keeps it interesting.
WACOAN: What is your work schedule like? How does it fit in with getting your girls to school and to all their activities?
Stephens: My official workday starts at 7:45 [a.m.] and ends at 3:45 [p.m.]. I wake up at 6 a.m., and I’m out the door by 7:15 to 7:30 a.m. I make breakfast and coffee every morning before I leave. My schedule changes every year, depending on my girls’ schedules. Last year I carpooled with a friend in the afternoon, and Matt drove Rachael in the mornings. Because I am able to leave at 3:45 p.m., I’m available for after-school activities.
WACOAN: I know you took time off when your girls were young. Did you ever consider not going back to work?
Stephens: I never considered not working … until I did it.
WACOAN: What did you like best about staying home during that time?
Stephens: I feel so lucky that I was able to stay home with my girls. That time was precious, and I made friends during that time who are some of my best friends today. Eight years later I went back to work. I need and want to work, especially since my kids are in school full time now.
WACOAN: In what ways do you feel your job contributes to the greater good of education and children? And what is most gratifying about that for you?
Stephens: Most kids love coming to PE. It can be a place where struggling students can succeed. If a kid is having a bad day, I remind them it all starts over with me, so they should make the most of their time.
WACOAN: Why is it important to you for kids to get a fresh start in your class?
Stephens: Everybody needs a second chance in a day. Sometimes a kid will come to class, and it’s obvious he’s had rough day, either at school or home. I encourage him to start over right then and make the most of his time in my class. Hopefully, he or she can forget whatever has happened for a while and feel good about himself. That may change his entire day.
It’s the same as me going to yoga and water aerobics. I can forget all the emotional stuff and just concentrate on the physical.
WACOAN: What do you see as the most important job in your life?
Stephens: My most important job is being the best mom possible and teaching my girls to be independent and self-sufficient.
WACOAN: Your husband, Matt, is a busy sales executive who travels. But he’s very hands-on in your family life. In what ways does he help you most with running a household?
Stephens: We are a team. We have a Sunday powwow about the week, and then we communicate daily and make it all happen. I send Matt reminder texts if he needs to pick up one of the girls or something. He handles most of the outside chores, like yardwork and trash, and he is mean on the grill and the smoker.
WACOAN: When did you two meet and how?
Stephens: We met in college at the Baylor [University] swimming pool. We were lifeguards together. Matt’s always said it’s the only respectable job you can have where you don’t have to wear underwear. Ha!
WACOAN: In the hustle and bustle of life with active girls, how do you find quality time together?
Stephens: We try to squeeze in time together when it works. That’s just how life is at this stage. It might be getting a bite to eat while the girls are at gymnastics class. We love our one-hour dates at the [Dancing Bear Pub]. It gives us a little time to chill and catch up.
WACOAN: Do you have a favorite brew?
Stephens: We both like to try different craft beers. In fact, we are going to New York City soon and are going on a beer and brewery tour. Matt likes IPAs, and I prefer stouts when it is cooler outside. Our favorites? Mine would have to be the Left Hand Brewing [Company’s] Milk Stout. Matt would probably say the Odell [Brewing Company’s] IPA.
WACOAN: What else do you two like to do to get away in town?
Stephens: Some of our favorite restaurants are Shorty’s [Pizza Shack] for pizza, the Clay Pot [Restaurant] for Asian and sitting outside at the Vitek’s [BBQ] biergarten on a cool day. We love Baylor tailgating. Matt and I like to fish off the dock at Lake Waco. To be honest, most things we do with a family, and the girls like fishing too. Actually, Matt, Sarah and I like to fish, and sometimes Rachael will just come along to hang out.
WACOAN: You have active girls — scholars and gymnasts. Give me a glimpse of each girl’s personality and spirit.
Stephens: Rachael is a freshman at Waco High. She’s Type A, hardworking, quiet and dependable. Rachael is involved in competitive cheer and is in the Waco High Showchoir. Sarah’s fun, thoughtful and brightens a room. She’s a 6th grader at ATLAS Academy [at Tennyson Middle School]. She is in tumbling classes and enjoys theater.
WACOAN: You chose Hillcrest PDS, where you now teach, for your girls’ elementary education. Why was it the right school for them, and what did they get from that experience?
Stephens: Hillcrest is a fabulous school and, in my opinion, the place to be in [Waco] ISD right now. My kids had the most dedicated teachers and staff, learned about many cultures and have done great on all their standardized tests. Under the leadership of our new principal, Dr. Amy Matthews-Perez, the school is headed in a great direction.
WACOAN: What was the most memorable part of their time at Hillcrest?
Stephens: We loved the focus on the arts and our music teacher, Paula Hoover, created an amazing experience for the kids in our Showtime musicals. All the teachers, essentially, are involved in Showtime, as it includes a book study and trip that incorporates social studies, math and science. After the research and trip, the kids write and perform a musical based on their studies and experience. Incredible!
WACOAN: What are some of the ways your family connects regularly?
Stephens: Our favorite time is hanging out in our pool all afternoon and having dinner in the backyard — with Matt grilling something, of course.
WACOAN: You and Rachael are involved in National Charity League [NCL], volunteering together. What kind of experience has that been for you two, and what have you gained from it?
Stephens: Any time I get to spend with Rachael doing something we wouldn’t normally do is good. It helps us appreciate all we have and see firsthand that not everyone is as lucky.
WACOAN: What are your favorite organizations that you serve, through NCL or other organizations?
Stephens: Through NCL, Rachael and I have enjoyed volunteering at the Family Abuse Center and for the Little League Challenger League when they play down at Baylor. We love cheering them on!
I served in the Junior League for 10 years and when then-president Angela Tekell asked me to co-chair Charity Ball, I was honored she had that confidence in me. My placements as Charity Ball chairman and provisional trainer were by far the hardest but most fulfilling jobs.
WACOAN: Any life lessons learned there?
Stephens: Working with a co-chair, there are always things to be learned. I had a co-chair whose approach was completely different from mine. I always plan ahead and get things done way ahead of schedule. She was more of a last-minute person. But she was fun, creative and likable, and the things she did always turned out great.
I learned that my way isn’t the only way and that there is more than one way to success.
This has helped me appreciate my daughter Sarah’s personality. Sometimes you need time to think about things, and then that creativity just explodes. I’m really grateful for knowing this.
WACOAN: With Rachael starting Waco High School this year and Sarah entering the ATLAS program at Tennyson Middle School, how is it going to feel not having one of your own children at Hillcrest for the first time?
Stephens: I loved my time with my kids, but I’m excited for them to move on and up. Personally, it will be a little easier not teaching my own kids. I have always tried very hard to be extremely fair and not treat them differently, but it is hard. I tend to be harder on them than a normal PE teacher would have been.
WACOAN: It seems important to you for your girls to figure things out for themselves, to be independent. Why do you believe this is such an important life skill?
Stephens: My kids’ being independent is vital to me. If I don’t teach them how to function on their own now, how can I expect them to succeed when I am not around? My parents encouraged and taught me to be independent at a young age, and I am just reteaching what I was taught.
WACOAN: Do you make your girls’ lunches, or do they do it? What are some favorite lunchbox items at your house?
Stephens: My girls have packed their own lunches since before I can remember. Rachael covers the food groups with some lunch meat (no bread), a fruit, usually chips and generally something sweet. Sarah packs whatever she can find. Her favorites would include Ramen noodles and mac ‘n’ cheese, and she could eat them for every meal.
WACOAN: I know you like to cook. What are a few of your go-to weeknight meals?
Stephens: Red beans in the crockpot.
WACOAN: Can you share your recipe?
Stephens: The trick is soaking the beans overnight and also cutting up all the veggies the night before. I like to put them in a crockpot liner and put that in the fridge. In the morning, place the liner in the crockpot and add beans, liquid and seasonings.
WACOAN: What might you have to go with it?
Stephens: Matt loves to grill, so anything on the grill, like chicken or sausage. I will usually have the meat waiting for him to season and throw on when he gets home. Also we are really into grilling vegetables in foil packets. So I prepare those — cauliflower, asparagus, broccoli, whatever — and he can put that on the grill too. It makes cleanup so easy.
WACOAN: Even though you like to keep it healthful, I know you love a good dessert. What is something you like to make for your family?
Stephens: I have a recipe, given to me by friend and mentor Coach Julia Dixon, for Banana Pudding Supreme. It’s so simple and so good. Basically, it’s one can of sweetened condensed milk, two cups regular milk, a box of vanilla pudding mix, a carton of Cool Whip, some bananas and vanilla wafers. You mix the milks with the pudding mix and then layer that with the Cool Whip, bananas and wafers. It’s easy to put together, and everyone loves it.
WACOAN: When do you find is the best time to go to the grocery store?
Stephens: Whenever I have time. Sunday afternoons and sometimes on a weekday evening for a few things.
WACOAN: Do you have a list, or do you just wing it?
Stephens: I shop best with a list. I will pick a few recipes and make a list so I don’t forget the ingredients I need. If I don’t make a list, I will just pick up a few items that Matt can grill, along with things that can go with them.
WACOAN: Something I love about you is that you are into creating experiences and making memories. What do you like to do when you can get away as a family, and what kinds of trips make the best memories? I’m guessing bigger doesn’t always mean better.
Stephens: We love to travel. During the school year I have a countdown to our next getaway or vacation.
For me, it’s about making memories as a family. It’s about doing special things they will always remember and spending time with people who will be lifelong friends. The more experiences you can give your kids, no matter how big or small, the better. It doesn’t have to be a trip across the country or the world. We enjoy spending time on the Brazos River with our friends. And when we can plan for a big or small trip, we like to do that too.
WACOAN: What have been some of your favorite trips?
Stephens: We love vacations with our immediate family and friends: Galveston for a quick beach; Sitzmark [Lodge] in Vail, [Colorado,] during the summer; Keystone, [Colorado,] with college friends; [Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida,] when the kids were younger; [Los Angeles, California,] to visit Matt’s sister; Dominican Republic (the girls’ first trip out of the country); Big Bend and floating the Guadalupe River in the Hill Country. We just got back from an Alaskan cruise with my and Matt’s parents.
WACOAN: And while on those trips, you seem to make them extra special by going off the beaten path.
Stephens: Yes. For instance, this summer while we were in Seattle, [Washington], we decided it would be fun to take all sorts of transportation. In that one city, we traveled by plane, train, monorail, taxi, streetcar, a ferry, and we even found a deal on a floatplane ride, which was really neat. It was spontaneous and just fun to experience the city from different viewpoints rather than just taking expensive taxis everywhere.
Also if you plan ahead, taking memorable side trips, like whale-watching or a mountain hike to an elevation of 11,990 feet, are experiences no one can forget.
WACOAN: Another thing I love is that you find ways to do the things you want to do for yourself and your family while keeping costs reasonable. What is the key to getting the most bang for your buck?
Stephens: We are big believers in using credit cards to our advantage. We put everything we can on our two credit cards (American Airlines Citi/AA Advantage card and American Express-Hilton HHonors card). We pay them off every month and then try to fly and stay for free whenever possible.
On our most recent trip to Seattle, I was able to book two nights for my parents, three nights for the kids and three nights for Matt and me — all for free. So that’s eight nights at close to $400 per night all because I used the Hilton Honors credit card. We also flew the four of us to Seattle for 50,000 miles one-way, which saved us about $1,000.
I use TripAdvisor a lot. Recently, I tagged along on Matt’s business trip to New York City. I read about the Roosevelt Island Tram. It costs the same as the subway, but we got to ride a tram over the East River to Roosevelt Island and spent a few hours discovering something totally new and completely different from the city. They had a farmers market, and we watched a Little League baseball game being played in this community.
WACOAN: Nobody’s perfect. In what areas do you struggle or wish you had better skills?
Stephens: Sometimes I can be too blunt. Sometimes I speak before I think. I may see it as just being honest, and I think my friends appreciate that they can always count on me to be honest with them. But it can also make people feel uncomfortable. That’s not my intention. I guess you could say sometimes I lack a certain softness.
WACOAN: How do you hope your girls see you as a mother, wife and teacher? What are you trying to teach them about being a woman? What qualities do you try to embody as an example for them?
Stephens: I hope they see me as being very down to earth and that they learn to be the same. I want them to learn to be reliable. To have fun. Matt and I are very good friends and like to have fun together. We had to work hard, go to college and now we go to work every day. But also we don’t take ourselves too seriously, and they shouldn’t take themselves too seriously either.
WACOAN: When you think about your life, how do you prioritize the things that are most important to you?
Stephens: For me, family comes first. Everything I do and all the decisions I make are with my family in mind.
WACOAN: Do you have a motto or a favorite quote or words you live by?
Stephens: Appreciate the moment and be grateful. Enjoy and live in the moment. Be spontaneous!