Some people shudder at the thought of being surrounded by middle schoolers all day. For Shaina Woo, it’s a privilege. “I really just wanted to work in an area where I could make a difference and leave a positive impact on kids’ lives,” Woo explains.
Woo teaches seventh grade English Language Arts at Gunning Bedford Middle School in New Castle, Delaware. Gunning Bedford is a Title I school, which means it receives federal funds to subsidize breakfast and lunch for the students who need it.
“We really have a diverse school,” Alexandra Hudes, a special education teacher at Gunning Bedford, explains. “The fact that Shaina is able to easily navigate the differences within the community, and connect each of her students to the world around them, is amazing.”
Woo is no stranger to navigating differences. She’s Asian American but grew up in a predominantly white town, which she said had its challenges. “There was a lot of underlying racism,” Woo says. But that didn’t deter Woo. In fact, it’s partly what drove her to become a teacher in the first place.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 80% of teachers in the U.S. – as opposed to 48% of students – are white. This means the majority of students may never have a teacher who looks like them, which can have lasting implications.
But for Woo, it’s less about being similar to her students and more about showing them how to relate to people who aren’t. For example, she made a point to incorporate lessons about the Holocaust in her English curriculum, knowing her students might not have been exposed to it otherwise.
She also arranged a special trip for her students to visit the Holocaust Museum., and helped raise money for those who weren’t able to afford it. “Shaina’s extremely dedicated to making sure her students are well-rounded,” Hudes says.
And it’s no coincidence that she works with students during one of the most transitional – and impressionable – periods of their lives. “During middle school, children start to think about who they are and where they fit in the world,” Woo says. But this isn’t just theoretical. In fact, the brain goes through an incredible amount development during middle school, making it one of the best times to learn.
For many students, middle school can be a time when they become more aware – and less certain – of themselves. But in Woo’s classroom, it’s a chance for kids to put themselves out there, identify their strengths and discover how they can use them to contribute to the greater good.
“Shaina came up with a lesson plan – while integrating common core writing and ELA standards – that challenged students to identify a problem in the community and do something about it,” Erin Motley, a science teacher at Gunning Bedford explains. In the end, her students decided to host a dodgeball tournament, raising $800 for a local food bank.
“The most rewarding part of my job is when I’m able to empower my students to realize they can take matters into their own hands and make a difference,” Woo says. But her students aren’t just making a difference in their community; Shaina also gives her students the opportunity to take initiative in their own learning.
When she wanted to give her kids an outlet to express themselves, she spearheaded a poetry night. When she thought they should be able to share their opinions, she started a TED Talk group. When she saw they needed help in the drama department, she spent hours after school pitching in. And when she identified a group of children who were having a difficult time reading, she gave up her lunch hour to start a book club with them, specially selecting a Jason Reynolds book she knew they’d enjoy. “Shaina adds to our school in a way that makes it a better place to work and a better place to learn,” Motley says.
Woo understands the power of education: how it can uplift, empower, and sometimes even save children. She also understands that the students who enter her classroom will one day leave, going on to make an impact in the world; Woo’s determined to ensure it’s a positive one.
“She isn’t just developing good English students; she’s developing good people,” Hudes says. And that just might be the most powerful lesson of all.
This piece is a part of a series for NBC News Learn's #LoveToLearn campaign, which is celebrating teachers making a difference during Teacher Appreciation Week. Want to join? Tweet who made you #LoveToLearn here!