Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Spotlight: Lauren Wilson (VA '15)

March 15, 2016

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Math teacher Lauren Wilson (VA '15) yelled a lot during her first year of teaching. A colleague shared some advice that changed her approach: The quieter the teacher, the more students listen. She received her Milken Educator Award at C.D. Hylton Senior High School on March 3, 2016.

Milken Family Foundation: How did you end up in education?

Lauren Wilson: I can't remember a time when I didn't want to be a teacher. When I was little, I had a chalkboard in my basement and would regularly "play school" with my sister and friends. When I got to high school I would tutor my friends and teammates in math while in volleyball and soccer study hall on game days. Many of them would tell me that they thought I explained it better than their own teachers, so I went to college with the goal of majoring in mathematics and getting a teaching license. I also knew I wanted to coach, so I came right back to Hylton and started teaching math and coaching both volleyball and soccer. 

MFF: What was your first job? 

Lauren: My first job ever, before lifeguarding, was babysitting kids in the neighborhood. It came naturally to me and I learned that I did in fact enjoy caring for the well-being of young people, playing with them, and being in charge. My classroom is mine to run and ultimately I am responsible for the procedures, learning, and fun that takes place in my room.

MFF: Who was your most memorable teacher?

Lauren: My high school health/physical education teacher and soccer coach, Karen Mays. She was the best role model I could have had as a teenager. She instilled confidence in me as a freshman player on the varsity soccer team by setting high expectations and pushing each player to her limit both physically and mentally, but she never failed to praise us for even the smallest victories. Most importantly, she gave us the tools to deal with shortcomings and work through the difficult days as a team. In the classroom, she made it a point to teach us about kindness and even paired a few of us up with students in our class who had physical and learning disabilities. It was our responsibility to make sure each student kept up with the classwork and was able to participate in the gym activities with a little extra guidance.

On the other hand, I learned a different lesson from a different type of teacher. One particular teacher of mine seemed to make it a point to humiliate and belittle students in our class. I watched classmates try to hide their emotions as they must have crumbled to pieces inside after being put down or made fun of in class by our teacher. Unfortunately, those teachers often have more of an impact on our lives than our favorites. I do my best to try to be very cognizant of how important my every word can be to my students.

MFF: Tell us about your first class.

Lauren: I yelled a lot. I remember a fellow teacher approached me after school one day to share some simple advice: "The louder you are, the louder they are. The quieter you are, the more you are heard." It was hard for me to understand why students didn't seem to care what I was saying, even if I was in front of them giving a lesson. At first, I struggled to find a way to "convince" the students who didn't like math or recognize the importance of math class that what we were learning and doing was valuable.

The single most memorable moment of my first year teaching was on September 11, 2001. It was the second week of school. I didn't know my students very well yet. It happened during third period. I didn't know what to do. The kids didn't have cell phones in the classroom then, so I don't think they really knew what was going on. None of us really did. I can't remember how I found out that something was happening; maybe an email was sent or maybe an announcement was made. I don't remember what was said between me and my students, but I remember the bell ringing for the end of the period and as the last student left my room, I felt a huge sense of relief and ran to the nearest TV.

Since my school is so close to Washington, D.C. and many military bases, I knew whatever was happening was going to really hit home with our community. I personally had an uncle in New York City, another uncle stationed at the Pentagon, and my father was stationed at Fort Myer in Arlington, just outside of D.C. It was a while before I found out that each of them was safe, and I learned first-hand how events outside of the classroom will most definitely affect learning. I felt a huge responsibility to care for my students. It was tough to get through that day of school knowing what was happening right outside our walls. I realized how my reaction to a crisis is vital to the emotional and physical well-being of my students. I was 22 years old at the time and I grew up fast that day. The events of that morning helped me to feel a bit more confident in front of my students when dealing with the future tornado warnings, lockdowns, D.C. "sniper" attacks, and even an earthquake that happened while I was in the gym coaching volleyball. At the time, we didn't have a drill for that. We do now.

MFF: A student is thinking about a career in education. What do you say?

Lauren: Anyone who has actually taught would say it's hard. And each year that goes by it seems to get harder and harder. We deal with more paperwork, testing, and seemingly unrealistic parent and administrator expectations. But we need as many great teachers as we can get in this world because it's the only way to keep raising great humans. You've got to have it in you. It's got to be "enough" to know that what you are doing is important and valued, though often outwardly thankless. I love what I do every day and I don't know many other people who can say the same.

MFF: What impact do you think your Milken Educator Award presentation had on students at your school?

Lauren: They feel a part of it. They feel important, too. We are all famous now. I have kids coming up to me in the halls that I don't even know saying congratulations. A few of my students that I have this year have told me that they are proud of me and feel lucky to be in my class. It's March, and as some of them were beginning to lose some drive, they have been recharged. It has also shown them that sometimes we do get a thank you. A really big thank you. 

MFF: What's your favorite time of the school day?

Lauren: Besides the obvious time in the classroom working directly with my students? Right at the end of the day as I reflect on each class. I make notes here and there about how to improve a lesson or assignment for next year and immediately begin preparing for the next day. Even after the most difficult day, I begin to recharge as I figure out how to make tomorrow better.

MFF: If someone gave you a million dollars for your school, what would you do with it?

Lauren: Hire more teachers. I have seen nothing work better for students than more individualized attention. I would love to see a smaller student-teacher ratio at all levels, not just in special education. With more teachers, we could also differentiate our curriculum more so that we are offering a wider range of courses that may pique the interest of more students. In these innovative classes, we would of course have the latest technology. In some cases, we would better prepare our students directly for the workforce after developing curricula in partnerships with leaders in a variety of industries.

MFF: When you retire (someday), what do you want your former students and colleagues to say about you?

Lauren: Students: She was right, math class was important. I may not remember how to do most of the problems that we did, but she helped me learn how to learn.

Colleagues: She cared about her students, fellow teachers, and the community she served. She helped inspire me to be the best teacher that I could be.

MFF: If you hadn't chosen a career in education, what would you be doing right now?

Lauren: I probably would have been a cognitive psychologist, maybe conducting research on how people learn and think. I loved a class in college called Cognitive Psychology so much that I changed my major for one semester. I came right back to math after trying my hand at the required philosophy course that corresponded with the interdisciplinary studies program.

MFF: Finish this sentence: "I know I'm succeeding as an educator when..."

Lauren: When my students know the value of the learning process, whether or not the material is important to them, and have gained the confidence to persevere through difficult times. In particular, when they come back from college to visit me and rave about how successful they are in their most difficult mathematics and engineering classes.

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