Teacher Week Profile: Wuta Onda, Lyons Community School
In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, New Visions is profiling some of the hard-working, dedicated and amazing teachers in our network of schools.
Today’s interview is with Wuta Onda, a teacher at Brooklyn’s Lyons Community School. Wuta is finishing up his year as a resident in the New Visions-Hunter College Urban Teacher Residency, a 14-month certification program. In addition to taking graduate coursework at Hunter College, residents spend their first year of practice working full-time as a faculty member of a high-need school in New York City, alongside an experienced mentor teacher. Through intensive support, residents reflect on their daily classroom practice and have the input of instructional experts to build a toolbox of teaching strategies.
How long have you been teaching? What drew you to the profession?
I’m a special education teacher resident. This is my first year teaching. But it’s my fifth year at the school. I’ve been here the past four years as a dean, so this is my transition into the classroom.
As a dean, I mainly worked with a team that designed behavior intervention plans; we worked one-on-one with the kids. Often, classroom teachers don’t have the time to connect with the kids when they are in crisis mode. We’re the ones who came in and we talked to the kids or worked with getting them back into class. But I wanted to make the jump into teaching. I’ve been working in education since I was 15, so this was all pretty much my master plan.
What supports have been most helpful?
I think my mentor, honestly. I’m pretty patient, but I can get defeated mentally when I don’t feel that I have support around me on fighting the good fight. There are some days that are rougher than others. Having my mentor say “It happens to the best of us,” helps. It helps to keep the drive.
Can you talk about specific instance where your mentor’s support was helpful?
I am a computer-illiterate person when it comes to making graphic organizers for kids. If it were up to me, I’d take a piece of paper, draw lines on it, put my questions on it and give it to students. Sarah, my mentor, worked with me on why things need to be aesthetically pleasing for students, what draws their attention, what keeps them focused, what keeps them interested and what helps them understand. Bold font, margins, these little things that don’t seem to matter, matter. And it helps having Sarah’s examples from last year. It’s a sharing of ideas. I didn’t ever think teaching would be this collaborative, and it is. It beats going on the Internet and finding something generic, when you have someone in the building who can give you a nice bag of tricks.
Tell us about the school and philosophy behind it.
The reason I’m drawn to Lyons five years in is the same as my first year: it’s a real community. I went to a small private school in 8th grade that was big on community, on nurturing young boys into men. I also went to a specialized public high school that was in a small community setting. And when I came into this building, I saw the same thing was going on in this school. The principal didn’t have an office, she was just sitting at the table when I first walked in. There were kids in the office joking with teachers and not only were they enjoying themselves, they wanted to be there, they felt safe there.
When kids know that school is a home to them, they can perform a different way. They can let their guard down, we can talk about the deeper issues, parents and parenting and gangs and violence, because there is this culture of respect, this culture of love that I really believe in. I don’t think school should be anything other than an extension of your home, and this building does a pretty good job at that. Our philosophy is trying to build the whole student.
What supports of the UTR program have been most helpful?
They’ve given us a lot of training on formative and summative assessments, understanding how tests don’t have to be a dirty word. Assessments are used to help understand what you’re teaching and how to better service your children. I’m a believer of that.
I came into the program thinking tests just get kids anxious and nervous and, in the grand scheme, I think standardized tests still do that. But if I ask a group of kids questions, it tells me what I need to teach. It tells me what they don’t know. If I ask the questions right, it tells me what gaps students have in their learning. It guides my teaching, my lesson planning, my unit planning and how I think about my students.
UTR has been really good explaining how to use tests, how to graph data into concrete information so that I can say, “These students have gaps with interview starting,” so I should be doing a lesson on interview starting.
New Visions has also been good about using rubrics. They grade us on rubrics every time they come to observe us A rubric can be something that’s helpful with guiding a kid to where you want them to go. It helps me get the kids where I want them to be, and at a collegiate level. I can teach them a skill that they were missing and I can give them a rubric that they all understand, all agree with, and their final product ends up being better. That has been the greatest success this semester.Just watching how teaching skills and formative assessment can really help bring kids’ work up.
How do you balance both graduate school and teaching?
This is no game. Fashion was my first real thing I flirted with in undergrad. But teaching just made sense. It’s hard. Sleepless nights.Two a.m. papers just to teach on at 8:40 a.m. But I wouldn’t do anything else. A few blemishes on my face, some bags under my eyes, but I’m not complaining.
Do you have other teachers in your family?
My mom taught nursing and my dad teaches accounting. So, teaching runs in my blood.
What does the name Wuta mean?
It’s Nigerian. It means “No one is higher than God.” My parents wanted to give me a nice Nigerian, Christian name. My parents were born in Nigeria. I’m first generation.
What’s been big success for you this year?
The first student I met in this building called me a wrong name, didn’t know how to talk to people. But I’ve watched her grow. I have a picture of her using flashcards. She wasn’t prompted to do it. Probably because she had a test later that day. She pulls out flash cards and reads a couple. That’s why we do what we do. Nothing else matters. That’s the kind of fame that I want. She’s going to remember me, and I’m going to remember her like that. That’s everything to me. Watching her grow, I couldn’t ask for a better job, honestly.