Five Questions … With Mary Hawkins-Jones, the Most Hopeful Teacher in America
Throughout the year, The Bulletin will feature a five-question interview with someone in MCPS. Today, we interviewed Mary Hawkins-Jones, a fifth grade teacher at Westover Elementary School who has been named the Most Hopeful Teacher in America by Gallup and Atria Books. She has been teaching for 23 years. If you have an MCPS colleague that you think would be a good candidate for “Five Questions,” let us know!
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
The most rewarding part is seeing the future. I’m preparing my students for jobs that don’t even exist today. If I can give them hope and teach them how to make connections, make learning engaging and make it real for them, I don’t have to worry about the future. It’s going to be great. At the end of the year, I can look at my future and I’m able to smile.
When did you realize that you wanted to be a teacher?
When I was about 12 years old. My mom used to clean people’s houses. I went to work with her during the summer. One of the ladies had a younger daughter named Susie, who was 2 or 3 years old. The lady asked me if I could help teach her the alphabet, her numbers and colors. My job was to play with Susie and teach her the basics. A couple years later, my mom asked me if interested in teaching Sunday School class at church. She reminded me about Susie and told me I had done a good job. That’s what resonated in my mind.
In my family, whatever we decided to do, my parents encouraged. They told us to just make a plan and go with that. They never told us there were limitations.
Why is hope so inspirational, and what role does it have in education?
I know that when I give everything I have, they’re going to give it back to me in the future. My first year of teaching, I taught Cristina Ulrich (MCPS Teacher of the Year in 2012) at Langley Park McCormick Elementary School (in Prince George’s County). Cristina is an outstanding teacher. I like knowing that I played a small role in her future. And now, she’s doing that for her students and even though I don’t know her students, I’m still playing a part in their lives too. So I have a constant impact on the future. It’s that ripple of hope.
You talk a lot about being Southern and your big family. How has that shaped your professional life?
I’ve learned a lot of lessons from my siblings. I try to take real-life situations and apply them so students understand. As a kid, I had terrible acne. I went to the doctor, who told me what to do, but the kids teased me. [As one of the youngest] I always had somebody standing up for me, but my brother also told me, “You need to learn to stand up for yourself. I won’t always be here to protect you.
“When people say stuff that hurts you, just say ‘it hurts me,’ and walk away. If you keep walking away and not saying anything, they’ll know they’re getting to you. Let them know they hurt you, but they didn’t get to you.”
We have to help kids develop that voice, to stand up for themselves.
What advice would you give to a first-year educator?
Make a connection with a student. Find out what’s going to motivate them to move forward.
Last year, I had one student who was into dirt bikes and cars. He wanted to be a mechanic. That’s all he cared about. I started reading the magazines and started talking to him about how he could be an engineer, about how he could improve the bikes, how he could design his own bikes. We made that connection. I opened up other options to him. That gave him hope.
We were doing a science lesson once and I said, “Let me go to my expert on speed.” I called on him. And he looked at me like, “Me? An expert?” I put a formula on the board and he said, “I’ve seen that in my magazine!” He came to the board and explained it. That was a real-life connection with him.
Hope means having the confidence to move forward. When you give someone the confidence to move forward, you help them elevate to the next level in order for them to continue to grow. That’s inspirational.