LaTonya E. Waller (M.T./B.S. ’01, Post Master’s ’06) 2011 Virginia Teacher of the Year
That was the only part of her name a shocked LaTonya E. Waller remembers hearing at a ceremony announcing she had been chosen 2011 Virginia Teacher of the Year.
“Automatically my hand went over my face and I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, did they
just call my name?’ and everybody started clapping,” Waller said.
She was selected from a field of eight regional teachers of the year, with Waller representing Region I – Central Virginia. Within minutes of finishing her acceptance speech, Waller received offers from educators in the audience to speak at colleges and universities. “And my phone is still ringing,” she said.
Having earned a Master of Teaching degree and Bachelor of Science degree from VCU’s School of Education, Waller began her teaching career in 2001 at Richmond’s Broad Rock Elementary School. In 2005, she moved to Lucille Brown Middle School. Waller received a Post Master’s Certificate in Educational Leadership from VCU in 2006.
She sums up the feeling of going from VCU graduate to Virginia’s top teacher with one word: humbling.
“There are over 95,000 teachers in the Commonwealth of Virginia, so to represent all those wonderful and dedicated individuals who are in the profession I love is humbling,” Waller said.
Waller teaches sixth- and eighth-grade science in the International Baccalaureate Programme at Brown Middle School and is chair of the school’s science department. She coaches the school’s “Mind Games” team and sponsors numerous activities for students.
In 2009, Waller received an R.E.B. Award for Teaching Excellence, which included a $10,000 grant for her to travel to Hawaii and Iceland to observe landforms and geological phenomena. She was recognized by the American Business Women’s Association at its 2011“Hats off to Women” Awards luncheon in celebration of Women’s History Month.
“LaTonya Waller instills in her students a love of learning and a commitment to community service,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Patricia I. Wright (M.Ed. ’84). “She is a mentor to her colleagues and epitomizes excellence in science
Waller was selected after being interviewed by a committee that included representatives of professional and educational associations, the business community and 2010 Virginia Teacher of the Year Catherine S. Webb of Giles County.
“I have always felt like I was Teacher of the Year every day I teach,” Waller said. “Great teachers are dedicated and go above and beyond the call of duty.”
With her award, she received $5,000; a ring from the Apple Federal Credit Union Education Association; $2,500 from Richmond law firm Allen, Allen, Allen & Allen; a classroom technology package from Smart Technologies ULC; a lapel pin from National Quality Products; educational opportunities from several public and private colleges and universities; flowers from Strange’s Florists; and an engraved crystal apple.
Waller credits God and her students for bringing out the best in her every day, her family and several Richmond Community High School teachers for instilling in her the value of education, and her son for inspiring her “to teach all children the way I want him
She believes that “all students can learn and be motivated to do so” and that “learner-centered instruction should be the norm, not the exception.”
Waller also credits her VCU pedagogy and methodology classes for preparing her for the classroom and still uses the science methods books authored by her former professors Richard J. Rezba, Ph.D., Sandra Parker and Ena Gross, Ph.D.
“VCU is top-notch,” she said. “I received an excellent education.”
Waller’s participation in the AmeriCorps program during college, including 1,800 hours of community service, was influential in helping her realize “the real difference that active participation can make in the life of one child, one school or a whole community.”
As an AmeriCorps alumnus, Waller seeks to engender in her students a commitment to community service. Students participate on the weekends in service projects such as cleaning the James River near Belle Island, organizing Central Virginia Food Bank drives and helping to raise money for breast cancer research through fundraising walks.
Waller empowers individual students or groups to seek out projects on their own. She is most proud of their plant-based cookbook, an outgrowth of a unit titled “Obesity: a Choice or Chance;” the “Brown Goes Green” STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) project committed to integrating service learning with content; and the Science Extravaganza and Discovery Night held every February at Brown Middle School highlighting more than 300 science fair projects.
She is a product of Richmond Public Schools and a graduate of Richmond Community High School, which is ranked among America’s best in U.S. News & World Report. She got the “spark” for teaching science as a student at George W. Carver Elementary School. “It had a greenhouse and we were always in there.”
Waller has passed her love for “hands-on science” on to her students who share her passion for working in their school’s greenhouse, where they learn about plants and the benefits of recycling.
“A lot of Ms. Waller’s ways of teaching us are really fun and interactive,” said Claire, a student. “One of my favorite parts of learning was doing these really cool songs and dances that would teach us about the different kingdoms of living things. Science has been my favorite subject since elementary school and Ms. Waller has inspired me to consider pursuing it as a career.”
In January, Waller returned to VCU to offer advice to student teachers preparing to intern in Richmond area schools. “I’ve sat where you’re sitting, I’ve anticipated what you’re anticipating, I know that you’re anxious and nervous, and you’re wondering if you’re prepared,” she told the nearly 200 students, faculty and staff who attended the annual Graduate Intern and Student Teaching Orientation meeting in the University Student Commons. “I can tell you that, based on the education I received from VCU, you are truly prepared.”
“Cherish this call because it will be tested,” Waller said. “We know truly in our hearts that children are what matter most and, regardless of what happens in the political scene, you are to always put children first.”
Waller urges new teachers to push and engage their students, and to view the Standards of Learning as a floor instead of a ceiling.
“Take your students above and beyond the basics. Have them explore, question and imagine. It’s like my grandmother Blanche Pretlow said, ‘You can’t sharpen a knife with a sponge.’”