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To Motivate Students, Make it Personal

June 6, 2019
Houston educator Shontoria Walker is elevating the support structure—for students and teachers alike—in the community where she was raised.

When Shontoria Walker graduated from UT Austin, she was unsure returning to her hometown to teach was the right move. Then she set foot in the classroom.

After five years honing her craft as a teacher, Shontoria is now raising the bar for her colleagues as an instructional coach and taking her fight for equity and resources to the State Capitol.

What brought you to teaching?

When I graduated and was looking for a job, the KIPP Houston Public Schools offered me a two-year residency paired with a master teacher. I grew up in these schools—Chatham Elementary, Key Middle, Barbara Jordan High School. I come from a low-income background. When I was applying to college, the guidance counselor didn’t do the right paperwork, and I ended up getting $1 —one—in scholarships. I ultimately accepted the teaching position because experiences like that made me think I needed to do something different for kids like myself.

What was it like setting foot in the classroom for the first time?

I needed to be taught how to be a teacher and how to best serve these kids. My first year was spent in the Sunnyside community, which was approximately 80% African American, 9% Hispanic. I was moved to the KIPP Polaris Academy for Boys for my second year. The principal told me I was the first person to teach at the school who grew up there.

I walked in on the first day and introduced myself to the students. One boy raised his hand and asked, ‘Are you leaving or are you staying?’ This group had a teacher leave every single year. This was the moment I found my purpose. That one question changed my outlook on everything. I had to build their trust.

Tell me about your students.

Some of my eighth graders were three to four years behind in reading. One could only write his name. We had the highest number of special education students and highest number of emotional disorders in the district. They were behind because they were missing so much school. So, we had to start from the beginning and find things that motivated them.

The bookshelf in our classroom was torn down and badly stocked. I brought in tools and craft supplies and the first thing we did as a class was rebuild that bookshelf. They would tell me about the things they liked—horses, bikes—and I rallied the community to stock the shelves. In my first year, the boys achieved 83% passing, which was unheard of for this particular group of students. We doubled the KIPP standard of 1 to 2 years’ growth per year, and nobody left my room without knowing how to write. I decided to get my master’s degree. I am now working on my EdD at the University of Houston with a research focus on black boys and literacy.

How has your position evolved?

After teaching for five years, I transitioned to work as an instructional coach at Empowerment High School for the 2018-2019 school year. While my primary role is to support teachers through research-based practices, I still work directly with students to see how my coaching is impacting their learning experience. My job is to enhance whatever a teacher wants their classroom to be.

This new school is approximately 96% Latinx. They have experienced some of the same circumstances as the young boys at my previous school, and caring and providing for their families is also a top priority. Unfortunately, often times, our students have to serve in parental roles at home. Yet, we are asking them to be kids in the schoolhouse. This can create a tough space to navigate as a student. I push teachers to understand their students on this deeper level. If we expect great things from them, we also have to give our students more. Teaching is one of the hardest jobs that you can ever do, but it’s not highly appreciated. Non-teachers don’t understand the day-to-day stressors. But even now that I’m in a leadership position, I still can walk in and say, “This is how I felt when it was my classroom.” I can empathize.

How are you breaking through?

I recently held a writing clinic for seniors. Most of the students had not truly experienced someone sitting next to them to talk to them about their writing.
I try to have teachers take a step back and realize that each child is an individual. There is something there that will motivate them to learn. Is it easy to find? No. But you need to invite them in—find that proximity—and make them engaged, energized and ready to learn. Bottom line: Asking a student what their dreams are will always be more impactful than telling them what they should do.

How are you advocating for teachers outside the classroom?

People who make the laws often don’t understand what educators are going through. Without a teacher’s voice and stories guiding the process, something that’s meant to help can often times actually hinder students.

I joined Teach Plus Texas three years ago, an organization that teaches educators how to advocate for educational policy. So far, we’ve advocated for mental health and trauma training, school funding, as well as teacher mentorship, and a lot of the bills we supported passed! It’s empowering and makes teachers feel like we can change anything, rather than just do what we are told we can do.

As an educator, do you have a guiding principle?

My mantra is that your circumstances do not determine your outcome. Where I’m from, often when we turn on the TV, we see people like ourselves portrayed in a negative light. But I came through the school, I came through this community, and I’m out here getting my doctorate. My students, my fellow educators, they are rooting for me, and I’m rooting for them as well.

Teachers Inspire is a series of stories that highlights the talented professionals who are inspiring students across the U.S.
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