McDuffie Director of Curriculum and Instruction Dr. Lynn Cato nominated Ms. Strong for this recognition and says about her, "Throughout her 25-year career, Mrs. Strong has inspired and challenged a generation of learners. Often cited as the most influential of their educators, her lessons are data-driven, personalized, and innovative. Sonya infuses problem-based learning, creativity, and collaboration in all lessons, and her students' performance on the EOC consistently yields top results. In the past her students have designed and built a butterfly garden, worked with local artists to produce quilts for cancer patients, designed linear art for charitable auctions, and worked with local civic and business leaders to explore solutions for McDuffie County. Sonya is unafraid to conquer new battles and strives to improve her practice while mentoring new colleagues. Completely selfless, Sonya has shared her expertise at the system's annual mini-conference, local post-secondary institutions, and several conferences. Simply put, she is the best teacher I've witnessed in my 26 years in education."
We chatted with Ms. Strong about what inspired her to become a teacher and the things she hopes to instill in her students.
GaDOE: How did you decide to become an educator?
Sonya Strong: There are several factors that influenced me to become a teacher. One is the fact that some of the most instrumental people in my life were teachers. Another factor is that I have always been a scholar at heart. As a child, learning was my hobby. I loved the school environment. To this day, the smell of paste and construction paper makes me smile and fills my heart with warmth! As a child, one day when I was ill, I even snuck out of the house to board the bus and attend school.
I was in kindergarten and I was sick. I was supposed to stay home with my grandmother. My grandmother loved to read her Bible and to make quilts. After she had made us breakfast, just as she did every morning before school, she started to search for her daily word and quilting supplies. While she was preoccupied, I snuck out of the screen door and got in line to board the big yellow bus with the rest of the neighborhood kids. I guess she realized I was missing from the breakfast table just as the bus was pulling away. I can still see her now standing on the front porch in her housecoat waving her finger at me with admonition.
I waved back to her with a toothless grin from a window seat and off to school I went. We took pictures that day at school. When those school pictures came back, my grandmother mounted a big 8x10 of me on the wall. I was wearing a pink strawberry shortcake shirt with a sheepish smile on my face. That picture stayed on the wall for about twenty-four years until my grandmother passed away. During those twenty-four years I walked past the picture of little Sonya smiling back at me countless times. I don’t know what standard we learned that day. But, I do how I felt that day and everyday at school. I felt safe and nurtured. And, this is why I teach-to share this passion for learning with others. I loved to learn then and I still do.
To me, the highest level of learning is teaching. I want to help nurture, teach, and mold our most indispensable resources, our children. As teachers, we sometimes grow unaware of the number of students we influence each day, because for many of our students, school is more pleasant and nurturing than home. This is why we must be attentive and must strive to build relationships with our students and their parents. Because for many, we may just be the most positive person for a child on any given day. The school may even serve as the only dependable place that a child can receive a warm meal. We must endeavor every day to touch each life and to be that positive motivating factor. We must make a sincere effort to make every student feel safe, nurtured, and loved.
GaDOE: What subjects do you teach?
Ms. Strong: In my 23-year tenure, I have taught Georgia History, reading, and math to grades ranging from 6th to 12th. I have been given the opportunity to serve in a variety of capacities from math coach to remedial specialist. However, most of my years in education have been spent teaching my absolute favorite subject, mathematics! This semester I am teaching Coordinate Algebra and Advanced Algebra to some of the most brilliant minds in the world.
GaDOE: What is your teaching philosophy?
Ms. Strong: My teaching philosophy is anchored in the belief that every child has an innate desire to learn and that success for each student is attainable. I feel that it is my responsibility as an educator to ignite the yearning to acquire knowledge for my students by providing meaningful learning opportunities in an environment that is equitable, yet truly differentiated. It is my charge as an educator to support my students in growing academically and in character. I not only want students to become astute scholars, I also hope to assist my students in becoming responsible citizens. I strive to exemplify the characteristics of an outstanding teacher by seeking first to understand before asking to be understood.
And, to judge not, because, I know that students come to me with a set of experiences, circumstances, and gifts that are as unique as our very own fingerprints. I embrace this diversity by meeting students where they are and by assisting them in reaching their highest potentials. I am a proponent of mastery learning, an idea alluded to in 1971 by Benjamin S. Bloom, which is built on the philosophy that when a student learns a standard is not nearly as important as if they learn it. And, to learn is to understand.
I also believe that a rigorous learning environment where students are encouraged to use inductive and deductive reasoning to formulate their own conjectures is paramount. Teaching students how to think far exceeds teaching them what to think. I know that rigor, without scaffolding for students who struggle, is synonymous with failure; therefore, I use data to create an environment where learning supports are always in place and progress monitoring is systemically employed. As I provide stepping stools and even ladders of support to struggling students, I realize that I must also provide extensions for learners who excel in order for all students to continue to grow and to soar to altitudes where the sky is only the beginning.
I believe that the highest level of learning is teaching. If you peer through the window of my classroom, you will see students acting as facilitators of learning. My classroom is built on the premise that to be the best in the class is not enough. Students must strive to be the best for the class, because success should not be measured by what is received, but by what is given in service to others. I also firmly believe that students should be afforded the conduits to create their own learning opportunities. As a result, on any given day, my students can be observed learning math standards from tasks that they helped to create.
As a teacher, nothing is more rewarding than to witness a student who once struggled become a confident learner who excels. As the first person to graduate high school in my immediate family, I saw education as the only means to provide me with better opportunities in life. As a child, my mother encouraged me to be studious and to acquire all the knowledge that I could. I was blessed for such a mother in my life. However, many of my students come to me without that encouraging voice saying, “It is not where you are that is important, or even where you have been. It is where you can see yourself that is most significant to your success.”
I ultimately want to be that encouraging voice that inspires students to achieve. I constantly look for ways to improve my art as a teacher in efforts to provide the highest quality of education for my students. I understand that the role of the teacher and the role of the student are parallel paths. I feel that it is necessary to cut a transversal between these two paths and travel them both, because I am cognizant of the fact that I cannot teach that which I have not first successfully and truly learned. I also know that I cannot expect that which I am unable to reflect; therefore, I give my best every day and expect nothing less from each of my students.
GaDOE: What is one thing you hope students take away from your classroom at the end of the school year?
Ms. Strong: I want them to take a sense of accomplishment with them. Each day, I work to build my students' mathematics self-efficacy. I provide an environment that is rigorous in content and allows each student to experience success. I want to take with them the knowledge of the standards, a greater sense of commitment to make the world a better place, and knowing the fact that even though they may not still be on my roster, they will always be my babies and I will always advocate for their continued success.
GaDOE: What motivates you to come to the classroom each day?
Ms. Strong: There is no other career that I would like to have than being an educator. I love teaching and I love learning. I want to make a positive difference in world by building astute scholars and responsible citizens.
GaDOE: What is one dream you have for your students?
Ms. Strong: It is my dream for my students to find their purpose in life so that they can live a life that is truly meaningful and profoundly rewarding.