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Teacher Spotlight

Teacher Spotlight: Dr. Toni Harrison-Kelly

April 12, 2021

This month, we are highlighting Dr. Toni Harrison-Kelly and her work in the CCR Space. We learned more about her journey as an educator, her path to CTE, and how she incorporated the EOD curriculum into her own classroom. 

Also, learn about her racial equity training services!

Edutopia Article

Consulting Company: School Leadership for Social Justice

  • Website: SLSJ.us 
  • IG: SLSJ.us
  • Twitter: @slsjus

What was your path to teaching? What was your path to CTE?
As a child people told me I should be a teacher, but I didn’t understand why. I went to college and determined not to be a teacher and majored in Biology.I was going to be a doctor. I got to organic chemistry and at the same time, I got a job at a child care center. I changed my major to child dev and the rest is history. I’ve been working with kids and for kids ever since. It was part-time in college. I didn’t get certified to teach until 3 years later I went through Dallas ISD’s Alternative Certification Program. I’ve been teaching for 15 years of teaching, and 6 years in KERA in their Ed department. The first certification was 1-6th generalist, then I got certified for science, then I was a Director of Education at a private school in FW. When I came back into the district I wanted to work at the Barack Obama Leadership academy. I went to volunteer and they had a robotics position available. I’ve always loved tinkering with things, working with my hands, problem-solving, so I was hired to be a robotics teacher with no CTE experience and no CTE certification so I had a deadline to get certified. That’s how my CTE career started. It is a perfect fit for my personality. I taught 6th-12th CTE focused on robotics engineering, a little bit of Tech Apps, Career investigation.

Why have you stayed in Dallas ISD/CTE Teacher? Sarah Zumwalt?
What brought me back to DISD was the creation of such a wonderful magnet school. I was excited to be a part of something brand new, to help create and develop this ideal school, and it was a lot of fun. So I was drawn in by the programming. I’ve stayed in DISD because of TEI. it’s wonderful to be compensated for the work that you do. It’s not every teacher’s privilege but it has been my story. It’s not a common thing to be able to say as a teacher. I feel that I am paid what I’m worth. Definitely not common in every district.

What has made you stay at Sarah Zumwalt Middle School?

Honestly, in my first year, I wanted to quit. There was a Culturally mismatch between me and my students. I looked like them but there was a – socio-economic divide and I had to humble myself and understand the culture and start learning the culture to become a part of what was important for my students. That process was rough but it got easier as the first year went by. My students realized that I wasn’t leaving. That I wasn’t going anywhere. I grew so much and I definitely feel like I am called to be there. My students have so much going for them. I think they deserve high-quality teaching and learning just like any other student. Now it’s become my life’s mission to make sure all students have the best teachers. I stay at Zumwalt because it’s a part of my mission for equitable education and I’m glad to be there. I love it.

Why is your work in the CCR Space important?
In particular, I get to be a life coach for my students in this role. I think every teacher really is a life coach. I get to help them discover what lights their fire, where their passions lie and create a roadmap to get there. It’s even more important where I work. Every year I ask my students “how many people did you know who have graduated from college that is not a teacher at this school?” And in each classroom, I’ll get 3 or 4 who even know someone. That means my guidance and what we do in the classroom is very crucial. My students have as many options as any other student in Dallas ISD. What I love about being in college and career readiness is I get to present these options, help them identify what gets them excited. They get to try on as many different areas and learn about the process to help them make a good choice once they get to high school.

What has been the best thing about being able to incorporate portions of the EOD curriculum into your own curriculum in your classroom?

I like that the Curriculum speaks to students as equals, it’s not speaking down to them. I feel that it’s giving them real-world advice, and information, it’s so relevant. When I pull an EOD module I don’t ever question the integrity of the work. I don’t ever think where they leave my students in the process that may or may not be supportive of where they want to go into the future. It makes me want to incorporate it into my teaching. I have other curriculums that I’ve read through that I think “you’re not giving them the information that they need or you’re putting it in a way that is degrading or too far above their level. I think EOD does a pretty good job of shooting straight, telling students information that they need, in a way that they can digest, but in a way that really is how it’s going to happen. It really is a real-life roadmap, and I really think it’s valuable.

When you’re not in the classroom, what are you doing/how do you stay involved? (LISD, SLSJ, Edutopia)
Because I work at Zumwalt, I have developed this hunger and thirst for learning more about how to create equitable learning environments for students of color – particularly for students of color from low socioeconomic households. After that first year, I realized that gap between my students and myself can be crossed just by interest and knowledge. It was a hard road but we made relationships and we created bonded. I heard from other teachers that they also didn’t have those same connections with students. They didn’t have that same level of student engagement and so literally I decided to get up and get a doctorate in student engagement and how we reach engagement for students who look like my students. It just started off as a curiosity and really it has now transformed into my life’s work. After completing my doctorate – I started in 2017 – my research topic was student engagement and how to increase student engagement through gamification. It’s been really fun to just continue to learn and grow, to be able to use my classroom to test out different approaches, and the goal is to close the opportunity gap. Since that’s my goal, and it’s also the goal of my best friend Sharla Horton-Williams – we both got our doctorates from Texas A&M, we both started an equity firm called School Leadership for Social Justice. We focus now on sharing that information. We do training, DEI, work with schools across the country. It started as me just being a teacher at Zumwalt and it’s now turned into this whole business where I’m able to help lots of different educators and continue to grow my practice. And people always ask me what I’m going to do with this doctorate, and I’m doing it. I want to continue to be in the classroom so that I can have practical answers, develop practical solutions and not just issues that are theoretical.

Why is it important for educators to have a racial equity lens and to have more educators of color?

Until we hire more black and brown teachers, we have to make sure that we emphasize cultural competence. If we’re going to come up with a solution it has to be something that is accessible by teachers of every color. We focus on developing cultural competence. We help teachers dive inside, look at their own racial history, write their own racial narrative, and understand their motivation, and hopefully as their beliefs and their heart changes then their behavior changes. Our goal is to help teachers see their students through a different lens, and that lens is that they are as capable as all students are so that their students of color get the same opportunities that their other students do. I think it’s important for teachers to do their own equity work on their own, in their own lives because we are the gatekeepers. If we have a racist system and if African American and Hispanic children are referred to special education programs, or referred to the office for disciplinary referrals, if we are underrepresented in gifted and talented programs – those are all teacher-controlled. Those are all things teachers are the gatekeepers of. So if we can make sure that we are managing our hearts then we can make sure to change the outcomes for students of all colors.

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