By Lauri Hennessey
For The Beachcomber
Dr. Stephen Floyd has always worn many hats. Actor. Director. Mentor. Friend. Community Volunteer. Activist.
And for the last 20 years, he has been a popular teacher of English and Drama at Vashon High School. But now, Floyd has decided to close out his teaching adventure on Vashon, retiring next month.
Floyd is a self-effacing man, prone to large bursts of laughter and dry observations. He has also been keenly focused, as a teacher, on helping those who too often are forgotten.
And, for the last 20 years, as Floyd taught English and theater by day and directed high school musicals by night, Vashon was the beneficiary of both Floyd and husband Phil Dunn’s talents on the stage, as well as behind the scenes. Both of them have become beloved local actors, directors and volunteers in Vashon’s vibrant theater scene.
Before moving to Vashon, the couple had lived in Eugene (Floyd received his doctorate at the University of Oregon), as well as Portland and California, with Floyd teaching college. Floyd said they moved to Vashon to get away from the big city after they worked on campaigns for LGBTQ equality in both Oregon and California.
In a bit of biographical lore that no former Floyd student would ever imagine (or now, fully understand) the teacher’s first job after moving to Vashon was in the management training program at Blockbuster Video, a chapter Floyd calls “soul-crushing.” He missed teaching, though he had always resisted the idea of teaching secondary school.
“High school was not a fun time for me,” he said. “I could not imagine going back into that. To be honest, middle schoolers scared me.”
As soon as he decided to go back to the classroom, he saw an ad for a paraeducator at Family Link. He was hired full-time the following year (2001) as a classroom aide in the high school. While he worked in the high school, he took classes at night to get his teaching certificate. When the district was able to bring on another teacher in 2002, Floyd’s moment had come.
A key partner in Floyd’s work for many years was Susan Hanson, former principal at VHS. The duo ultimately co-directed an array of popular high school musicals from 2005 onward. Floyd said working with Hanson was one of his favorite parts of his job.
“We had a great partnership. We frequently thought very much alike. On the first show, we were finishing each other’s sentences like an old married couple,” he said.
“I trusted him,” Hanson said. “If something wasn’t right, I could always call him. He is loyal. He is trustworthy. He is there for people. He is so generous.”
Both Hanson and Floyd speak of the incredible power of drama in high school in terms of providing kids a place to fit in. “Art saves lives” is their shared mantra.
“I have had so many students whose participation in theater got them out of bed and to school each and every day,” said Floyd.
Hanson agreed about Floyd’s ability to connect with kids.
“One of the things I respected most about him was his ability to connect with students that others could not connect with. He could motivate them … He saw the real side of students,” she said.
One of those students was Hailey Howell-Quackenbush (Class of 2013), who said Floyd’s classroom and theater would become almost like a second home to him.
“He is the kind of teacher every young person should be so lucky to have, the kind of teacher who believes in you so much, that eventually, you have no choice but to also believe in yourself just as fiercely,” he said.
Howell-Quackenbush also said Floyd led by example.
“I think the most important thing of all that he taught us was how to be a good person,” he said. “He constantly led by example with his kindness, compassion, and empathy.”
The duo of Hanson and Floyd co-directed many ambitious high school musicals over the years, from “Little Shop of Horrors” to “Chorus Line” to “In the Heights.” One story that has been shared over the years involves the staging of “Fiddler on the Roof” in the 2000s. “Tevye” (Noah Green) developed strep throat. Floyd found out the morning of the opening and pasted the script into the Torah and took on the part.
“I knew the blocking and the songs,” he said. “The kids stepped in and helped. I had a wonderful time playing that part.”
Hanson also said that Floyd was an excellent English teacher.
“His knowledge of literature was exemplary,” said Hanson. “His doctorate was in theater but he knew literature,” she said.
Floyd said one of his greatest sources of pride was in bringing new voices into the English class curriculum by authors that students might not otherwise read on their own, including authors of color. Floyd also took great pride in making his classroom a safe place for LGBTQ students, reaching out to them and working with the high school’s LGBTQ Alliance whenever he could.
Floyd said times have changed a lot in his 20 years at the school district, recalling how when he first arrived on Vashon, kids would sometimes yell gay slurs at him across the parking lot or drive by and yell at him while he was on the street.
“That has utterly disappeared in the last five to eight years,” he said. “When we first moved here in 1997, we did not imagine we could get married. That was not a conceivable dream. The cultural progress has been immense and fast. “
Floyd and Dunn eventually were married in Vermont, California and Seattle.
One of Floyd’s fondest memories was in taking his students on a trip to China in 2017 to an international youth festival, where they had the honor of opening the festival and were the only group from a public high school. He also supported the creation of original work, including musical works, written by students and produced on stage.
“I am indebted to so many people who made my job work,” Floyd said, naming such collaborators as Maggie Laird, his longtime musical director; Craig Hanson, who helped with sets and, of course, his husband, Phil.
“Such is the life of a theater spouse, I suppose,” Floyd said. “The late nights, the tears, the thrill of a good rehearsal one day and the agony of a messy and difficult one the next.”
Dunn shared his favorite story of Floyd as a teacher, dating back to the early 2000s. Dunn said he had a dance class with special needs students, including two students in wheelchairs. For the final showcase, Stephen and another student escorted the wheelchair-bound students onto the stage, where they danced to “Dancing Queen” by Abba, complete with floor choreography and figure eights.
“It was a really beautiful moment in theater,” Dunn said. “Stephen always makes room in his classes for all students who show up and works hard to make his assignments inclusive.”
Through the years, Floyd and Dunn have been a part of many Drama Dock and other local productions on the island, both on stage and behind the scenes.
“I have had the privilege of working with both Stephen and Phil — both acting with and being directed by each of them,” said frequent collaborator Lisa Breen. “They bring a level of joy, experience and professionalism that is rare in community theaters. Their commitment to our young people is astounding. We have been lucky to have them for the time we have.”
Floyd said he and Dunn will probably move somewhere closer to family and do more acting.
And as for the years he has spent a teacher on Vashon, he has no regrets.
“This has been a very rewarding career,” he said. “I have loved my job more than any human being should expect to love what they do and get paid for it. It has been a delight to me, a great source of inner fulfillment.”