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On Her Role

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Alys Porter, an ESL teacher at Dobie Pre-K Center and the 2017 Elementary School Teacher of the Year for Austin ISD, exudes an unmatched passion for being an educator.

By Alys Porter

My emigration from Guyana, South America to the U.S. was the most traumatic experience of my life. Even though we were poor and lacked first-world amenities, I flourished socially and academically in Guyana. At the age of 10, I stepped off a plane and was greeted by the bitter, unwelcoming cold of New York City. And even though it was more than 30 years ago, I still get a chill thinking of the horrible experience that was my first day of school in the 5th grade.

Education in America was very different than in Guyana, and because my appearance and accent set me apart from my new classmates, I found myself struggling academically in subjects in which I had always excelled. My confidence and self-esteem plummeted and I became introverted. Since my classmates made fun of my accent and dialect, I didn’t like to speak and my reading fluency and pronunciation suffered.

My mother did her best to help and we spent many long nights at the kitchen table doing homework. I was fortunate to have two great teachers in middle school that I credit with my total academic turnaround: Mrs. Scott in 6th grade and Mrs. Barrington in 8th grade. I went on to graduate from a magnet high school and was the first in my family to graduate college, from an Ivy League university, no less.

The example set by these two teachers became my inspiration and model for teaching and helped me develop my own educational philosophy. I believe every child can learn and experience success, and my role is to facilitate their success. Regardless of a student’s current academic performance, I challenge myself to elevate his or her skills. I believe education is a partnership between the teacher, administration, student, community and family, and works best when all parties actively participate.

My classroom functions like a community; students high-five each other and celebrate successes with whole brain mantras like “Oh, yes!” and “Practice makes permanent.” I teach my students to be metacognitive learners and to practice these behaviors from the start of their educational careers.

I teach students to value and celebrate cultural diversity. I remember the pressure I felt to lose my accent and “fit in,” so I make sure every student in my ESL classroom understands that his or her uniqueness is an asset.

I commute more than 20 miles each way in Austin traffic so I can work with students from immigrant families and conduct home visits so they know I care about their lives and the issues that affect them.

Students are encouraged to share their languages, food and holidays so we can all learn and grow together. I believe teaching is a science and an art. Therefore, as a scientist, I am methodical when planning lessons, conducting assessments and analyzing data to provide students with the most engaging learning experience. As an artist, I strive to reach each student so my lessons are dynamic, incorporating technology, music and movement.

I believe in the power of education and that all students deserve access to the best possible educational opportunities. Prior to moving to Austin, I taught at Leonard Elementary in Leonard ISD, a Title I school. When I relocated to Austin in 2012, I sought out Head Start Pre-K programs because I wanted to work with students who needed the extra resources these social programs provide. Even though I was a certified teacher, I accepted a teaching-assistant position in order to make my dream come true.

During a professional-development day, my principal asked us to share why we teach.  A few teachers shared their motivations, which were all very child-focused and what you would expect of loving pre-K teachers. But as I thought about it, I came to an eye-opening realization: I teach because it makes me happy.

My mother is a great example of someone who found her calling as a nurse. I’ve always admired the way in which she cared for the sick with such ease. So, when asked why I teach, I know it’s because it’s my calling. It’s where I find fulfillment and leave my contribution. It makes me a better person. Teachers are often thought of as superheroes, but in my case, I’m the one being rescued.

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