Last October, Allison Ashley of Austin ISD was named 2017 Texas Elementary Teacher of the Year by the Texas Association of School Administrators. It was an honor Ashley didn’t see coming, but in speaking with her, that passion for education clearly shines through. She holds a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and has spent over a decade as a bilingual education teacher—seven of those years with Austin ISD. In what was a very busy summer for someone who’s always learning, Ashley took time to chat with us about receiving the honor, her teaching philosophy and her advice for new teachers.
AF: What drew you to this field?
Ashley: I entered teaching because I wanted to serve my community and I learned about Teach for America in college. The mission of that organization spoke to me. Its focus on using education to expand opportunities for all kids, but especially those in low-income areas, compelled me to look into teaching and join the profession.
AF: What was it like working for Teach for America?
Ashley: Overall, it was an incredible experience. There are undoubtedly many challenges that lots of first-year teachers face in the classroom, but through hard work and connecting with students and constantly focusing on bettering my craft, I started to see results and an impact on students, and that was super-motivating and kept me going.
AF: How did you find out you’d been named Texas Teacher of the Year?
Ashley: They did a recognition luncheon at the Bob Bullock Museum. It was an awesome event. They brought together all the 40 regional Teachers of the Year. There are 20 different regions in Texas, and each of them name an elementary and a secondary Teacher of the Year. The whole event was just incredible, to be in the space with so many talented and inspiring fellow educators. It was not a recognition that I was expecting, but it was an honor.
AF: What goals do you set for yourself?
Ashley: I have many. Toward the end of the second semester, I start jotting down things that went well and things that I want to improve upon. Over the past couple of years, I’ve focused a lot on trying to work more closely with the families and caregivers of my students and learn from them about their children and hear what their goals are for the education of their child and let them know my vision and where things are headed in my class. That came out of that reflection process toward the end of the year.
You know, our education system is by no means perfect. There are things that are going well, and excellence does exist, but as a whole there’s still so much room for improvement, especially our at-risk youth. That compels me to continue working my hardest to improve.
AF: What goals do you set for your students?
Ashley: There’s a range of goals. For sure there’s the piece of developing students to be good citizens, to have positive self-identity, to learn how to work across lines of difference and to engage respectfully with peers. It really takes getting to know the students, their strengths and what their areas for growth are, how they see themselves and how they see their strengths and barriers. That feeds into how I approach setting those goals and the best avenue to pursue those goals with the students.
Obviously, there’s the academic side, which is also very critical. Without working on that first piece of students developing positive identities and having confidence and learning how to work respectfully in a collaborative environment, you can’t get to the academic piece. Or maybe you do, but it’s not as meaningful.
Knowing their interests, knowing their learning style, diagnosing where they are at the beginning of the year, figuring out what an ambitious and feasible goal is, that’s where I start that process. Obviously, I have guidance from the state. They tell us what we have to teach, but that’s kind of the floor and not the ceiling of the way I view my work with students.
AF: What challenges do teachers experience?
Ashley: Quite a few, I think. There’s so much that we want to do in just a limited amount of time. Trying to figure out what the most impactful lessons and community building activities are is a challenge. Mixed in with that, there’s different policies and demands on our time and things we have to do. It’s sorting through all of that.
Another challenge is working with a wide range of individuals and learners. Each student brings in different interests, different learning styles, different readiness levels academically, different personalities. Trying to get to know students as quickly as you can and as deeply as you can at the beginning of the year and using that information to push the whole class forward is pretty complex work that often is overlooked by people outside of education.
AF: Tell us about your new role this school year.
Ashley: I will be working as an Instructional Coach at Becker Elementary. In that role, I’ll be supporting campus-wide initiatives and programs and systems that we have in place here. Also, I’ll be working collaboratively with teachers to support their development in the classroom.
AF: Any advice for new teachers?
Ashley: Gosh, the first year of teaching is hard. There’s lots of advice I could give, but overall just getting to know your students is so important, and the basis for building mutual respect in the classroom and a positive community where students feel supported—the basis for all that is knowing them. My advice would be to love your kids, and you have to know them to do that.
by Sherida Mock