When you walk into Shauna Hawes’ classroom at Valley View Middle School in Pleasant Hill, it’s almost impossible to feel anything but optimistic. Everywhere you look, there seems to be a motivational poster of some sort. “Be Fearless! This is your time,” says one. “This is my happy place,” cries another.
A personalized letter from President Barack Obama hangs on another wall, thanking the teacher for her work with students.
These notes set the tone for a classroom culture that is both inclusive and warm, much like Hawes herself. A teacher for almost 20 years, the computer wiz was recently awarded Contra Costa County’s Teacher of the Year Award for her efforts to boost STEM curriculum across not only Valley View, but also the entire Mount Diablo Unified School District. She succeeded, pulling in more than $500,000 in grant money and spearheading several programs, including a STEM lending library that allows teachers to check out the latest gadgets and gizmos, and a camp that focuses on helping young girls learn to code.
Students in her computer literacy classes are learning how to build websites, make web graphics, use robotics and DSLR cameras, and even operate 3-D printers. With Hawes at the helm, they are also learning how to be kind to one another, a lesson that they pick up through collaborative work and undoubtedly through her example. Always patient, she stops at every student’s computer terminal and paces back and forth around her large classroom, following the hands that sporadically rise into the air. When she arrives at a desk, it’s rarely without a smile.
Although several students said they felt lucky to be in her classes, it’s Hawes who claims to be the lucky one.
“I get to see kids who are not artistic do beautiful work; I get to see students who have never been good at math suddenly do coding and robotics and be really proud of themselves for things,” she said. “I get to watch kids create things that they thought were never possible…That’s why I love what I do. “
Math and science were never Hawes’ passions when she was a student. She said she dreaded math, but always had an appreciation for curriculum that gave students an opportunity to learn practical, “hands-on” skills. That appreciation intensified after she had her own children and noticed that college-bound students were being advised against taking practical courses, apparently because they didn’t fit university admissions criterion that historically prized English and arithmetic.
“My biggest concern is that our students are losing hands-on access to things that make sense,” she explained. “When my son was going into high school, I wanted him to take an auto mechanics class. It didn’t fit the A through G requirements, and the counselors tried to dissuade me from having my son take it. I thought, don’t college-bound kids’ cars break down too? I feel like we’re missing out on what education is supposed to look like, because they’re not getting practical skills when they’re walking out of the classroom.”
As woodshop classes across the country shutter, including the one at Valley View, Hawes is hoping her computer literacy courses will provide a 21st century alternative.
“She has a lot of real life applications in her computer class that the kids can see practical use for in the future, and it engages them,” explained Crystal Stull, a vice principal at Valley View. “There’s a lot of recognition for her (as teacher of the year). It brings a good climate to this school.”
The students seem to agree. During their lunch break, Hawes teaches a special course called “Mouse Squad,” which has iterations across school campuses nationwide. At Valley View, it’s composed of a small group of students who applied for the course, hoping to get more of the hands-on experience that the teacher touts as “essential.”
Jazmine Cano, an eighth grade Mouse Squad member, is working with her group on a drone that has a camera attached. Like something out of an elite lab in Silicon Valley, it can be operated through a smart phone or tablet and is fitted with special landing hardware. The tech used in the project was funded through a grant that Hawes applied for on her own time.
“It is all about technology and what you love about it,” explained Jazmine. “We help different teachers with how to fix their computers or projectors, so whenever they need any help or any have technical difficulties, we can go and help them.”
Jazmine and fellow student Miles McCall said Mouse Squad is one of their favorite classes, partly because Hawes trusts them with technology and allows them to learn from it. Echoing yet another aphorism plastered to the classroom wall, they say they are encouraged to “just go for it” from the start.
“She’s incredible, like one of the best teachers ever,” Jazmine said. “She always takes into consideration what we know or what we have difficulties doing. It’s like a big family. We all understand each other and try things together.”
Gillian Edevane covers Contra Costa County for NBC Bay Area. Contact her at Gillian.Edevane@NBCUni.com.