Nyaria Lee is a second-grade teacher and parent to Kai, a third-grader, at Impact Puget Sound Elementary in Tukwila, WA.
Nyaria’s love for teaching did not come early in life. She did not like schools or her teachers growing up. She said, “I didn’t feel like they understood the way I learned…I was one of those students who was reluctant to speak in class, not because I was shy, but because I was afraid to say the wrong answers and be shamed.”
Today, Nyaria strives to be the teacher she never had. She hopes to redefine what it means to be a teacher, and she believes that her role extends beyond the classroom as a support system for students and families. “I want to be the teacher, the social worker, and the family friend.”
For her, it is fundamental that no matter what, her second-graders know deeply that “Ms. Lee will be here for them.” She takes the time to understand why a scholar is not participating, she learns about children’s lives outside of the classroom, and she reflects on her instructional practices and her role in driving educational and racial equity for her scholars.
For Nyaria, it’s about doing whatever it takes to find intentional and innovative ways to provide the support services scholars need to get educated. “I will drive to deliver packages if that’s what they need, making sure scholars have computers, or finding ways to get students’ hotspots.”
Nyaria’s motivation to pursue teaching was further fueled by witnessing her son’s struggle with focusing, social behaviors, and relating to other students at his neighborhood school. Kai has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and an Individual Education Program (IEP) to access special education services. “This experience prompted me to start thinking about education and how important it is for students, not just to learn academically but to come to school feeling whole and that they belong.”
As a prospective teacher as well as a prospective parent, Nyaria was drawn to Impact Public School’s rigorous curriculum that places a strong emphasis on social-emotional learning. At Impact, the teachers use a practice called “True North” that is adapted from Valor Academy, another high-performing charter school model network. Valor’s “Compass Discipline” model helps scholars regulate their emotions by practicing breathing and being present. Once a week, regardless of whether school is in-person or virtual, scholars participate in “Circle,” built upon an ancient practice of inviting in the community, checking in on their feelings, and providing uninterrupted time for them to share what’s going on.
“We teach scholars to give support to their classmates. If they are feeling sad, we send some love or give virtual love and high-fives. I try to make sure I know what’s happening with their family.” She wants her scholars to know, “I’m not just your teacher, but here to truly know you and support you.” She hopes her scholars will continue to stay in touch with her through high school and beyond.
Nyaria glows every time she talks about her scholars. Nyaria is redefining teaching and learning by understanding and attending to individual student needs – and truly valuing the whole student. During COVID-19, she is leaning into what she can control to ensure that scholars can still enjoy coming to class regardless if it’s in a brick-and-mortar school or online. Her intentional approach, coupled with Impact’s innovative approaches, are already showing impressive results for students.
If you would like to support passionate teachers like Nyaria or support schools designed to serve the whole student, consider the following actions: