The open door at a Dallas academy
Science teacher Monica Hall uses shared experiences to connect with her students.
Monica Hall came into the teaching profession the long way. Before becoming a science teacher in Dallas, her early memories of education were tinted by a period of major legislative and social change for her home state of Louisiana.
In the mid 1980s, the state’s school districts began desegregating its public schools by sending black students to white-majority schools. This policy, referred to as busing, put Monica into her high school as one of its very few black students at the time.
The keys to leadership
Being the older sister of seven siblings, perhaps Monica had always been a teacher in the making. Her time in the Army would call upon these underlying leadership skills. Her four years with the Army provided her with many opportunities to see what good instruction looked like, and to be an instructor herself.
“I was always teaching and educating someone in some way.”
It would take her several attempts to pass the exams required to enlist in the Army, however. Monica struggled specifically with the math portion, having to re-test four times during her senior year of high school. Her scores were so low she was given the option of being either a plumber or a cook. She chose to be a plumber, which in hindsight she says was the best decision ever.
"I learned a lot of skills that I would have never learned if it were not for this experience."
During her service, she traveled all over the Pacific bringing aid to impoverished countries by supplying them with access to plumbing and clean water.
After her time with the Army, Monica joined the Air Force Reserves in the early 2000s as an administrative assistant. It was during this time that she started her undergraduate studies at Texas A&M Commerce, meeting an unlikely instructor who opened an entirely new door for her.
Making hearts and smiley faces out of numbers
Having a limited high school experience, Monica had to take remedial courses in college. Struggling with these courses, she sought tutoring outside of classes. She remembers a particular grad school student who helped her with math assignments.
The tutor employed every trick and mnemonic device in the book to help Monica understand the numbers. Some of these unconventional teaching cues included dancing around the room, drawing smiley faces and hearts and making puppets out of everything.
“It got me motivated, like, ‘OK, I’m not dumb. I’m not illiterate. I can do this.’ She made we want to be a better version of myself.”
As zany as the tutoring was, math began to actually click. Monica went from struggling with remedial coursework to taking math all the way to Calculus 2—well beyond her math requirements of Algebra 1.
Looking back, Monica recognizes this quirky math tutor as an inspiration to teaching. She wishes she could go back and find this tutor to thank her.
“It got me thinking back to what I had, and what I didn’t have in school. I didn’t have someone pushing me or motivating me, or even cared if I was there or not.”
When Monica decided to become a teacher after graduation, she set out on a mission of giving back to students what she didn’t have growing up.
One door leads to another
Currently an Earth and life science teacher at the Dallas Environmental Science Academy, Monica sees students from all over Dallas who bus to her school. Many of these students share the same socioeconomic hardships Monica saw growing up in Louisiana.
“I see a lot of my past in a lot of my students. Even the ones that act up, it’s all for a reason. There’s something going on there that they’re not getting.”
Having been through similar situations and upbringings, Monica is able to connect with her students on a more intimate level by sharing her own stories. For some students, this openness and vulnerability opens up conversations and creates a safe learning environment in Monica’s classrooms.
Her classroom remains an open door for many former students. Kids who have already graduated from her class will come to her during lunchtime and ask for help with another class. She recalls one student in particular, who comes to her class every day to charge his phone and work on assignments for his next class.
Her connections with her students extends also outside the classroom. You can find her at one of her student athletes’ games (she also coaches track and volleyball at another school). Many parents will recognize her as their son or daughter’s teacher at an event. It’s an ongoing relationship with the community that helps the classroom lessons.
Advice to new teachers
When asked what her advice to new teachers would be, Monica had a simple but powerful answer:
“Never forget your ‘why.’ Never sacrifice your integrity, morals or value for temporary gains.”
Monica can’t stress integrity enough, and there’s a seriousness in her tone when she talks about how she affects real human lives. She points to many of her friends who make more than her, but don’t have the same satisfaction in their work.
As a science teacher, Monica is constantly refining her process, either through tapping into educational resources or trading notes with her peers. She regularly does a self-assessment where she goes back to think about what she did, why she did it and how she can improve.
“I look forward to going to work every day. Not everyone can say that. I receive much more rewards in a totally different way.”
As serious as she is about teaching, Monica keeps her lessons lighthearted and engaging—perhaps a nod to a former tutor.
“If you’re having fun, you’re learning,” she said.