“An ultimate favorite memory I have at my current campus is the initial meeting of a girls empowerment group that I organized, ‘Woman Up.’ This is a mentorship program I started on my campus for 5th grade girls. After a rigorous selection process, I was able to hold our first meeting. As the facilitator, I had the unique experience of connecting with students outside of the classroom setting, and guiding them in their social emotional development as well. I received great feedback from the students, staff, and parents. Unfortunately, the meetings came to a sudden halt due to the rise of COVID-19. This is a program I will continue in the upcoming school years, and hope to see grow.”
Kimberly Ellis has a genuine presence, almost an aura – instantly seeming caring and compassionate before saying a word. Basically any question you ask Ellis about her career, the answer will always come back to the kids. She never even had a dream of working in education – it was a luxury she didn’t believe she had. Growing up, she watched her mother deal with substance abuse and a father who was in the U.S. Navy. Education wasn’t paramount, and being the oldest child, Ellis had a duty to care for her siblings. Passions such as basketball were quickly overruled by survival mode as she worked multiple jobs while continuing high school. However, despite her circumstances, not only did Ellis graduate, she graduated with distinguished honors.
It’s this lived experience that inspired Ellis to enter the field of education in the first place. “When I consider how many students walk the halls of our campuses every day, carrying so many various external factors that have a direct impact on their academic attainment,” she says, “I ask myself, ‘How could I not?’ How could I not be for children what I needed as a child?”
She feels this sense of obligation to be there for students whom she can so closely relate to, and she takes it personally. She knows doing her part in developing the hearts and minds of every student she comes in contact with could be vital to a student’s success. Ellis says, “[Even with] the societal unappreciation, arguable salaries, controversial politics, and several other contributing deteriorations, simply put, the children are and will forever be ‘my why!’”
The responsibility she feels to ensure an equitable education experience for each student, especially those traditionally marginalized, is something Ellis put into practice in the classroom when she was a teacher. Working mainly at schools which were predominantly economically disadvantaged, usually labeled as “Improvement Required,” instilled a work ethic and all-inclusive mission to her methods that remains to this day. “As I’ve transitioned into school leadership, my mission and responsibility to be a servant leader has remained,” Ellis says. “I believe every single student is capable of learning, and has the right to a solid education. Which is why I find so much joy in working alongside teachers to provide high quality instruction.”
Ellis recently organized an empowerment group on her campus called “Woman Up,” a mentorship program for fifth grade girls as they grow out of elementary and into middle school – a rather scary and daunting change, as I remember it. The program is designed to help the girls with organizational and time management skills, dealing with anxiety, building confidence, and navigating friendships, rumors, and bullying, among other things.
Ellis has a mantra she repeats and instills in her students: “Education may not make you rich, but it will make you free.” The idea is that the more you know, the more access you will have in this world to make decisions, receive opportunities, embrace confidence, and ultimately take control of your own life. “Not only was education my vehicle out of poverty, knowledge allows for a more impactful contribution to society,” she says.
Although working in a disciplinary position can be demanding and overwhelming. Ellis knows that is just one of the many hats she wears as an Assistant Principal – but everything she does revolves around the intentional effort put into each student. This effort allows for a connection to be formed that becomes sacred. It is what Ellis is most proud of when it comes to her work. Not the fact that she was named H-E-B’s Educator of the Year, or the various other recognitions she’s received during her career. It’s the fact that the first group of students she ever taught will be graduating high school, or that every milestone reached, big or small, is a sign of growth, or that she truly views their success as her success.
Simon RiosIntro to Engineering design Teacher and Robotics Coach, Moody High School
“No memory in particular, but I find it especially rewarding when I have a chance to dress up and be a part of the themed days related to pep rallies. I have dressed as Mankind, Subzero, a domino, Post Malone and other crazy wig characters.”
In seventh grade, Simon Rios told his Spanish teacher at Cunningham Middle School that he would never be a teacher. “They don’t get paid enough and they don’t get the respect they deserve,” he said. He wasn’t wrong about either of those statements. However, after never fully finding his footing while studying Biomedical Science in college, he visited his alma mater Moody High School, and reconnected with his former English teacher Anne Huckabee. Huckabee, who had sculpted Rios as a writer, encouraged him to switch his major to English and become a teacher.
Rios did just that, and ended up completing his student teaching at Moody around the same time they had planned the STEM Academy for Engineering, Environmental, and Marine Science. As luck would have it, they needed an English teacher who had the ability to infuse math and science into the curriculum, and Rios was the perfect fit. He was brought on and eventually became an Intro to Engineering Design teacher.
Nowadays, you’ll find Rios teaching engineering, and also coaching an award-winning robotics team and teaching yearbook. When he isn’t busy in the classroom, he’s often volunteering time to tutor students, running summer STEM youth camps with curriculum he has designed himself, or crafting DIY costumes to dress up for themed days and pep rallies. Needless to say, Rios doesn’t stop when it comes to his Moody community and his students. After all, the entirety of his education career thus far, 14 years, has been spent working at his alma mater.
When it comes to the responsibility a teacher holds, Rios talks about supporting students and advocating for better resources and opportunities. “I feel as if the resources and opportunities for our students are not adequate enough,” he says. “We need them to have deeper and more authentic experiences, while guiding them toward opportunities to gain more college credit and internship opportunities.”
He does this by encouraging his students to take standardized testing like the SATs earlier in order to get a baseline experience and be able to prepare to excel earlier, and to have his students take advantage of both dual-credit classes and AP testing to gain as many college credits while still in high school as possible. This is to help possibly lower the cost of school, as most of his students’ decision-making when it comes to college is based on being able to afford it or not.
Not only does he aim to help provide those experiences for his students, but he also strives to motivate each student toward a better trajectory than they had before he met them. “I have seen numerous students go through my class and school programs, and see evidence that I am making a difference, even if it was only a small part I played.” Based on his passion alone, we believe Rios is definitely playing more than just a small part in these kids’ lives.
I asked Rios what his students mean to him. “Sometimes they challenge me to my core, and other times I feel as if I am not even working,” he says. “My most favorite moments are when I am preparing my students for competition, because I get a chance to provide words of encouragement and cheer on their victories and pick their spirits up when they fall just short of their expectations.”
No matter the adversity being faced, Rios hopes to instill in his students that there is always something that can be done – always something that can be produced. “I can work with something,” is what he tells them, “I cannot work with nothing.” He’ll advise and modify, but he’ll never give the answer away. Because at the end of the day, he wants his students to be proud of the work they did and the accomplishments they have achieved, no matter how small.
English Teacher, Port Aransas High School
“When the school shut down after Hurricane Harvey, my husband and I volunteered in the community distribution center. I saw many of my students there, some helping, some in need. I wondered to myself how we recover from this. How does a community of teenagers get through this? For months “my kids” were scattered to the wind in various schools throughout the region. When the day finally came to bring them back to the classroom I was nervous. We were in portables and there would be no sense of normalcy. To my surprise, the building was not as important as the community. The school, it turned out, were the students and the teachers, not the facility. I saw them begin to flourish in the most difficult of circumstances. I think my favorite memory is that first day back.”
Dana Hawkins can be described as a firecracker. When asked to give her best “serious look” during our photoshoot, she laughed uncontrollably and finally replied, “I don’t have one.” She radiates positivity.
Hawkins, who was just named the National Honor Society Advisor of the Year, always knew she wanted to be a teacher. Picture a 7-year-old in her garage, playing school with her sister – where roll call was done daily and lessons of some kind were certainly taught. After moving to Port Aransas from North Texas, she fell in love with the high school and knew she wanted to be a Marlin until retirement day comes.
As a high school English teacher, Hawkins has had to deal with students’ shorter attention spans (most people have computers in their pockets, after all), and digital communication has diminished students’ aptitude at certain aspects of her subject, like spelling and grammar and reading long-form text. So she set out to make sure her classroom felt more like a safe, relaxed space that students would be excited to learn in.
“One thing I love about Port Aransas ISD is that they have allowed me to try new things,” she says. “My classroom looks more like a coffee shop: there are chairs, couches, lamps, fairy lights – all to promote an atmosphere that grasps their attention and provides an oasis in their day.”
The support Hawkins has from admin on down to be innovative in helping her students is key. The setup she has created has opened doors to students’ relationship with the classroom and Hawkins herself in ways she couldn’t have imagined – something which she believes is one of her biggest accomplishments as a teacher.
“This may sound odd,” she says when asked what she is most proud of, “but I think my greatest sense of accomplishment comes from the fact that on any given day – before school, during lunch, and often even after school – my classroom is full of students looking for somewhere they feel comfortable.”
Two years ago, students finding solace in her classroom expressed interest in starting a Gay/Straight Alliance. Several LGBTQIA+ students approached Hawkins to sponsor the alliance and without a moment of hesitation, she agreed. “In my past, I have seen way too many kids bullied, ignored, and physically threatened. A child should never be scared of who they are,” Hawkins says. “After this, I noticed a larger and larger group of students showing up in my classroom during non-instructional times.”
Now Hawkins, like every other teacher around the country, will have to adjust and adapt to the challenges of a COVID-19 world. Through digital learning and smaller classroom sizes, the task of continuing to teach and provide safe spaces for students will be one Hawkins does not take lightly. However, similar to returning to school after Hurricane Harvey, it’s a “new normal” she hopes her kids will embrace. After the hurricane, she remembers being nervous for students recovering from loss and scattered throughout various schools in the area. “To my surprise,” she says, “the building was not as important as the community. The school, it turned out, was the students and the teachers, not the facility. I saw them begin to flourish in the most difficult of circumstances.”
Hawkins is the type of teacher we would all have hoped for at some point in our education. She is the type of teacher who fights for her students – who will do whatever it takes to make sure, whether she has them in a classroom or not, they don’t feel left behind.