Nelly Houston | Occupation: Engineering & Project Lead the Way teacher at The Science Academy of South Texas (Science Academy) | Location: Mercedes
Tell us a little about what brought you back to STISD. What made you want to come back?
As I was working in the field, I really loved problem solving and engineering. I was specifically always mesmerized by electronics, not just any kind of engineering. When I got to work with making a circuit work, you can’t see electricity the same way you see a spring or a sprocket move. So, I really like it; however, I was at a point of my career where I was doing what I loved but I was traveling all over the world, which was great and seeing things people hadn’t; however, I was by myself. One of things that I was able to do was travel to China many times and work at the companies that would sell us equipment, and I got to see the quality of life that some of these kids – ‘cause they weren’t young people, like young men or adults, they were kids - and they were working at these factories. As a quality engineer, I asked them what they did for incentives to make sure there weren’t a lot of people leaving the factories. For a lot of these children working, toiletries were their incentives. These children were working and staying at the dorm houses and sending money home to their families, and I was going home to drive my fancy SUV and getting paid a lot of money, and it really put a lot of things into perspective for me. It just so happened that I was in California and a relative of mine that works for STISD happened to be at an education convention with one of the superintendents of the district that used to be my principal when I was a student at The Science Academy, and we were able to meet and discuss what I was doing. When I got back into Boston, where I lived at the time, my relative called to tell me that the district was looking for a new electronics teacher. At that moment, everything came together. Being a teacher was something I used to want to do and now I wouldn’t be just any teacher. I would be an electronics teacher and I would get to teach at the Science Academy, which is the only type of education that I was familiar with. I talked to my husband about the opportunity, and we decided to take the plunge, and here we are. I wouldn’t take it back. I would do it again in a heartbeat.
How does it feel knowing that you walked through the hallways as a student and now as a teacher?
At first it was really weird. Walking around the hallways and eating lunch with my teachers and having to call them by their first name… it doesn’t happen. Like I still call Mr. Coalson “Mr. Coalson.” I sometimes joke, but I still just can’t use their first name. The teachers that were my teachers, I just can’t call them by their first names. Another thing is I can relate to the students. For example, right now you asked me to bring my box of stuff from high school, and so I brought my high school and college diploma, and when I opened up my high school diploma, pictures fell. They were pictures of my senior portraits. I’m sitting there with my cap and gown and it has my name and I’m literally walking down the hall and seniors are taking their pictures right now, and it’s kind of cool. When students are struggling… I remember my first week of school I went home crying because I was overwhelmed with one of my teachers that had assigned a project that I felt I was not prepared for. My parents made a deal with me and said try it for a week or two, and if you can’t handle it you can go back to your home high school. I tried it for a week, but I realized I was able to do that project and I was successful at it. I realized that, yes, it is very challenging, yet with the support and the proper motivation, Science Academy is very doable. It’s not just doable, it surpasses your expectations of preparedness. I can share that with my students when they feel like giving up, and thinking they don’t belong at this campus, I understand them. I was in their same shoes at one point and I was able to do it, and turned out OK.
Do you think that the methodologies or the teaching practices that your teachers used with you have had an influence on the way you teach your classes and students?
I think so. I think that the way my teachers taught me was more than just academics. One of the big things that I take from them is trying to make a connection with my students. Some of the things that I do that they used to do with me is what we call ‘hands in the pocket talks.’ And so if I know there is something more than just academics, like issues that have to do with having moral character and making right decisions and things like that… Science Academy is just like any high school in that sense. When I know there is an issue going on at school or personally with anything that happened and the student body is talking about it, I kind of take a few minutes from my class and literally put my hands in my pockets and talk to them as if they were a loved one and somebody I want to be better… I think hearing it from your teachers is another angle to try and make them listen and make right decisions. It’s about everything. Once in a while I’ll talk to my students and tell them why I decided to leave the Valley and why I pursued engineering. I think that is something my teachers did with me. The teachers at Science Academy showed me that there is a culture that you care about the students more than just academically, and I try to do that with my students. I try to show them the truth which is that I care and that I want them to be better people.
What does it mean to be a Project Lead the Way Master Teacher?
PLTW is a national organization that is geared towards making sure we have engineers in the United States. STEM is math and science. Those two alone are great and very necessary, but without the technology it is just theoretical. Once you have technology then you have engineering which is basically using technology to apply those math and science concepts. In education trying to apply those STEM principals at PLTW, it’s not just ”Oh, let’s teach what we have to teach.” You have to know how to teach it and use the technology to do and teach engineering. Every teacher that teaches PLTW curriculum has to go through training, and I was lucky enough to be selected as a trainer for the teachers that are going to be teaching engineering. One of the things I do as a Master Teacher is go to the University of Texas at Tyler every summer and teach other digital electronics teachers how to be good at teaching, as well as PLTW does have a group of master teachers that meet once a year at a summit, and I am the leader of the Master Teachers for digital electronics in the US.
What is your favorite thing about teaching?
My favorite thing is being able to interact and to have conversations with teenagers. I don’t think I would be a good elementary or junior high teacher. The reason that I really love teaching at the Science Academy is that the students at that age are really searching, looking, growing, and that is the perfect time to get into their brains and into their hearts and inject a little bit of what I know.
What makes the education most effective for the students you are teaching?
At Science Academy, specifically, one of things that I know is that there are levels of administration. We have the most basic level, which is students trying to learn, and we have teachers supporting that learning, then administration supporting teachers, then central office administration supporting our administration. I work for the students. The principal works for me and the superintendent and their staff work for their principals. That’s how I look at it. If there is a situation there is going to be the administrators which know what happens within the school, but there is no better knower of what happens than the students and the teachers that are in the trenches. So I think our administration is very well aware that they are not the boss, but they are the support system. Anytime they make a decision as little as what should be the schedule for our Thanksgiving luncheon…they don’t just make the decision, they ask for input from the staff and when I make a little decision, I go to the students for their feedback. It’s always a funnel where we ask the students, the teachers are asked by the administration. The administration always makes sure that they ask for the teacher’s input before they make a decision. And that goes for everything, not just the planning of a Thanksgiving luncheon. For example one of the major things that Science Academy and our district is facing is that when a lot of our students are trying to graduate earlier….. a lot of students are taking classes at junior high levels and so now we are dealing with and having kids that are graduating within three years instead of four, and administration is sitting teachers and students down in committees to see what is best for our school and our district.
What does it mean when you say that students who choose to attend one of our schools is an expansion of their network?
A lot of people choose to think that if a student wants to come to our STISD schools that they are going to be leaving their home high school friends and relationships, but nowadays with technology, everybody has a communication device that is instantaneous. I choose to believe that you are not losing friends coming to a school that is Valley-wide, you aren’t losing friends, but now you are coming to a school that is from all over the Valley. They are now gaining access to people all over the Valley, and they wouldn’t be able to do that at their home high school.
There is still time for students to experience high school despite the rigorous course work. Expand on that.
One of the challenges in high school education is that a lot of students are choosing to go to college preparatory programs where students get to skip part of high school and go directly to college; however, I think that one of the things that needs to happen is that students need time to grow up and mature and so one of the things that we offer at STISD is the rigor, dual enrollment and other college-ready programs, yet at a high school setting where students can spend three to four years and get time to stew and to try to learn to be young adults without skipping out on that maturing stage of their life. One of the teachers at our school calls it ‘time and flavor.’ High school is about ‘time and flavor.’ You get to try and take different subjects and learn what you like and what you don’t like. You learn to grow up. Science Academy offers the opportunity to be prepared for college, but it doesn’t rob you of the ‘time and flavor’ of high school.