Rhoda Buckner was 17 when she gave birth to her daughter on a bathroom floor.
She was a high school senior, and she had kept the pregnancy a secret from her family, hiding it by wearing baggy clothes, fearing their disappointment. After attending classes on a Friday, at about 1:30 a.m. on Jan. 14, 1984, she stumbled into her parents’ bathroom in pain. On a burgundy rug next to the toilet, she gave birth to a baby girl she named Shalonda.
The teenager’s ambition of becoming a nurse instantly vanished, as did her dreams of college. As a single mother, Buckner instead got a job of necessity, performing clerical and orderly tasks at a hospital. But the mother wanted better for her daughter, and she saw a bachelor’s degree and a professional career as an escape from the trap of teen pregnancy.
“She was my life — I put my stuff on hold,” Buckner said. “I told her, ‘I just want you to be the person you want to be when you grow up. I don’t want you to be a teenage mom like me.’ ”
As a child, Shalonda Holt vowed to learn from her mother’s experiences and absorbed the importance of an education. She became a dedicated student inside the classroom and out, spending her weekend nights reading books while other kids looked for parties. She finished fourth in her class at Calvert High School and graduated from the University of Maryland Baltimore County in 2007, later earning a master’s degree from McDaniel College.
Now 32, Holt is a biology teacher at Centennial High School in Howard County, where her peers consider her a model educator and her students regard her as an ideal mentor. Holt credits her mother’s sacrifices for her success; she was named The Washington Post’s 2016 Teacher of the Year (formerly known as the Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Awards). School systems in the District, Maryland and Virginia, including D.C. public charters and private schools, selected nominees. The finalists, chosen by a panel of experts, educators and parents, are listed below. Each winner receives a trophy and $7,500.
“Growing up, education was just stressed to me,” Holt said. “My Saturday night was with Ben and Jerry’s and my vocabulary book.”
She spent her childhood living in her grandparents’ house, surrounded by family, except for her father, who had been her mother’s high school sweetheart. “He just ran away from responsibility,” Holt said.
Despite the distance of his relationship with his daughter, he was never far away: He lived across the street.
“It was really weird for me,” Holt said, noting that she’d see him walking in the neighborhood, but he never stopped to wave or say hello. She remembered thinking: “I know who you are, but I really don’t know you.”
“I’ve never hugged him.”
She fostered a strong bond with her mother, whom she treats like a sister. “I went through things that she never got to experience,” Holt said.
Holt dealt with her own challenges along the way, abandoning her pursuit of medical school after receiving a C in organic chemistry during her sophomore year of college, followed by a difficult breakup and a tragedy that would force her to reevaluate her life: the death of her brother’s girlfriend in a car accident while the couple were speaking to each other by phone. “Her last words were screaming his name,” Holt said.
Amid a moment of reflection, Holt decided to pursue her true passion: teaching. She realized she had been “living for other people” for too long and began a new career track at UMBC.
Before earning her diploma, she met a programming student who helped fix her computer. For his generosity, Holt took him to dinner at Red Lobster. They are now married.
“He’s always there to make my life easier,” Holt said. “He’s just dependable.”
He supported her as she trained to become a teacher, working at a tough high school in Anne Arundel County, an eye-opening embedded tour.
Early on, as she was walking through the hallways alongside the principal, he spotted a student wearing a hat. The principal asked the teen to remove it. “The student said, ‘Shut the f--- up’ and kept walking,” Holt said.
In one class Holt became so frustrated by her disruptive students that tears streamed down her face as she tried to get the teens to cooperate.
“I felt so defeated,” Holt said.
But it turned out to be a valuable lesson. “As a teacher, you’re an actor, you’re a performer,” Holt said. “You could be having a bad day. But when the bell rings, you come alive.”
During her last year at UMBC, she learned about a teaching opportunity in Howard County and was hired at Centennial in 2007.
On her first day, she wore a suit and high heels, hoping to appear mature and professional in front of her new students — teens just a few years younger than she was. But standing all day in heels brutalized her feet. A rookie mistake.
“I walked barefoot back to the parking lot,” Holt said.
Since then, she has emerged as a role model for her students and for other teachers.
“Shalonda Holt is a one-woman powerhouse,” Centennial Spanish teacher Jade Jordan wrote in a letter as part of her nomination for Teacher of the Year. “She is constantly striving to improve our students’ experiences at school while encouraging their own development as progressive and compassionate global citizens.”
A student, Ashley Berry, wrote that Holt “is one of the easiest teachers I know to talk to. I can tell her anything and I know she will always hear what I have to say without passing any judgment.”
Holt mentors young women and led the creation of a student club aimed at encouraging diversity. Now Everyone Stand Together, or NEST, has contributed to a more positive environment at a time when racial tensions in Howard have become a focal point.
At nearby Mount Hebron High School, a white teenager was recorded in a viral video disparaging black students earlier this year. “Who the f--- cares about some black man who dies?” the student said in the 30-second video, adding that black lives do not matter because “they are an inferior race.”
For Holt, the video represented everything she had been working against at Centennial, where she had strived to foster inclusion and unity at a school with a small population of black students.
“She is patient, soft-spoken, a peace maker; yet she knows how to stand her ground,” Centennial student Kendra Grissom wrote in a letter. “She is poised and carries herself with dignity.”
It was Holt’s grace that kept her collected when a white student came up to her a few years ago to tell her what he believed was a joke: “What’s black and hanging from a tree in my back yard? A tire swing.”
Holt said the classroom culture has improved, largely because of efforts by Principal Claire Hafets. But the suburban school still faces challenges, Holt said.
“It’s micro-aggressions — little paper cuts every day,” Holt said, noting that she can count the black faculty with her fingers. But Holt said that she chose Centennial hoping to contribute to diversifying the educational experience.
In Holt’s classroom, the students “are regarded as a close-knit learning community and a family,” Assistant Principal Tracy Scaltz wrote.
During a recent class, Holt taught sophomores about how cells create proteins. Holt uses a “flipped classroom” method, where students watch videos to learn new material at home. She uses class periods to lead her students through exercises to deepen their understanding of the subject. In one drill, the students turned RNA nucleotides into “sentences” of amino acids that represented new proteins. Formed correctly, Holt told the students, one sentence read: “We are all in this together.”
Alison Serino, principal of Westland Middle School in Montgomery County and a member of the committee that selected Holt as Teacher of the Year, said she stood out.
“She is the type of person who sees a need in a school community and finds a way to fill it,” Serino said.
Holt’s work mentoring minority students was an important example of her leadership for the committee: “She exudes a strong will but a caring side,” Serino said.
Between classes on a recent day, a student approached Holt in the hall and asked about completing missed assignments. Holt gently told the teenage girl not to worry, that she’d help her catch up. The girl’s brother had been killed in Baltimore, and she had had a breakdown in class, screaming in grief on the floor just a few days earlier.
“She was saying, ‘Oh, why did they take him. They took him from me,’ ” Holt said. “I know things are bigger than school, bigger than grades.”
Holt said she recognizes the influence she can wield and the responsibility that comes with it. She recalled clearly when a first-grade teacher chastised her in front of her classmates, telling her: “Shut up, Shalonda.”
“I remember how that felt,” Holt said. “I just know how big of an impact teachers have on students. For me, I just know that students feel like when they need something they can come to me. ... I like to be there, and I want them to know that someone cares for them in the building.”
Chesapeake High School, Anne Arundel County
La Plata High School, Charles County
Kate Waller Barrett Elementary School, Stafford County
Oakridge Elementary School, Arlington
Congressional Schools of Virginia, Falls Church private school
New Directions Alternative Center, Prince William County
T.C. Williams High School, Alexandria
C.M. Bradley Elementary School, Fauquier County
Shalonda Holt (winner)
Centennial High School, Howard County
D.C. Scholars Public Charter School, D.C. charter
Kemptown Elementary School, Frederick County
Samuel Ogle Middle School, Prince George’s County
Calvert High School, Calvert County
Shady Grove Middle School, Montgomery County
Kilmer Middle School, Fairfax County
Bruce-Monroe Elementary School at Park View, D.C. Public Schools
Rolling Ridge Elementary School, Loudoun County
Heather Van Gorder
Mount Daniel School, Falls Church
Osbourn High School, Manassas
Manassas Park Elementary School, Manassas Park
George Washington Carver Elementary School, St. Mary’s County
Correction: A previous online version incorrectly listed New Directions Alternative Center in Prince William County as New Dominion Alternative Center. This version has been updated.
T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter. Education editor Josh White contributed to this report.
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