Alumni Spotlight: Dontavia Morris

May 6, 2022
  1. When did you graduate from Relay, and where do you teach now?

I graduated from the Relay Teaching Residency with a Master of Arts in Teaching in 2020. I'm now an elementary teacher for the Cobb County School District, which is located right outside of Atlanta Georgia.

  1. What brought you to teaching?

I  have not always wanted to be a teacher. In fact, my first degree is in journalism.  When my husband and I learned there was a serious need for teaching in Florida, we thought this would be a perfect opportunity to give back to the community with the skills that God blessed us with. My first position was as a 9th grade English teacher, and I thought there would be a lot of writing in the curriculum. Boy was I wrong!  I struggled with content knowledge and finding work life balance as an out-of-field, first year teacher with very little support from mentors and support personnel. I actually wanted to quit teaching altogether. But I got my wind back when a veteran teacher whom I admired and respected told me, "You are an amazing teacher with so much potential, please don't let this school or school year stop you from changing the lives of children around you." So I finished my first and last year of high school.

The next year, I needed to devote my time to my family, but I still wanted to give back to the community and I missed teaching. So I began to substitute teach at an elementary school. When I was teaching high school freshman I realized the majority of them  were struggling with spelling, writing, and annunciation. I wanted to know where and when the disconnect was stemming from. I immediately began accepting PreK and Kindergarten assignments and quickly fell in love with the babies and learned that I have a gift for teaching phonics. I finally felt like I belonged. This was my true calling. 

So I got serious about it and began studying for my professional teaching certification. I read the study materials for the state test from front to back and took the practice test. Unfortunately, I did not pass the test for the second time by a few points. I was feeling hopeless and was starting to accept that having my own classroom with children to love and grow with  may not be in the cards for me. 

At this point I had been an elementary substitute teacher for two years and was reluctantly heading into my third. I wasn't reluctant because I didn’t like my job; it was because of my love for teaching and students that I wanted my very own classroom to help shape and mold our future leaders. My husband and I decided to move back to Atlanta, and I applied for Relay. I remember during the interview, Dean Harris asked me, "What can another lead teacher offer you if you have already been a lead teacher before?" My response was, "I wish I was paired with a veteran teacher in my first year teaching. I believe I would have learned so much more and been a better teacher today because of it. I would love the opportunity to learn under someone who has years of teaching experience!" A week later, I received a congratulatory email that I was accepted to Relay Atlanta's MAT Residency Program, in the founding class of 2020.

  1. What do you love about teaching?

I love how rewarding teaching is. From the first day of school when the students show up not knowing what to expect and so wide-eyed wondering what will happen next, to seeing the growth and maturity they exude throughout the school year as they explore the world around them through the classroom--with me as their very own conductor, guiding and cultivating their little minds, to know that they can do anything they put their minds to as long as they give maximum effort!

  1. How have you and your students been impacted by the pandemic?

I have been teaching virtually since the pandemic began. Online learning had a huge impact on my students’ social skills. Whole group discussions are pivotal to practicing habits of discussion. You can imagine it was quite difficult to do online with a class of very chatty 6 and 7 year olds.  It broke my heart that we couldn't have regular whole group discussions, where students could just volunteer (or “popcorn”) their answers. So, I came up with a system, where I would spin the wheel and whichever three students’ names the wheel landed on we would have a conversation around an open ended question for 2-3 minutes and if the other students listening agreed or disagreed, they would use the thumbs up and thumbs down emoticons in the chat to give feedback. This way everyone was given an opportunity to participate in whole group discussion and the students loved it! 

  1. How has Relay helped you to grow as an educator? How do you want to keep growing?

The pedagogy I was taught by Relay professors in conjunction with my brilliant and skillful Resident Advisor, Pricilla Goode Fowler, equipped me with a special set of my very own skills needed to adapt and flourish during this pandemic as a virtual teacher. The knowledge that I’ve gained through this program has afforded me the opportunity to increase my rigor of teaching. I do this by starting with the foundations. In phonics, it starts with phonemic awareness, and in comprehension it starts with question scaffolding, which consist of the 5 W’s and the H. I begin my questioning with a lower depth of knowledge question (DOK) and gradually increase the rigor to a higher depth of knowledge question(DOK) focusing more on analyzing rather than identifying and recognizing like in a lower DOK question, adjusting instruction in the moment as needed of course.

I look forward to growing in the coming years by attending professional development opportunities that arise through Relay Connect and networking with colleagues. I still want to learn how to prepare PreK students for 1st grade without overloading them too soon, so that they are learning and still having fun while  developing the stamina and endurance to meet state standards for 1st grade.

  1. What moments of joy do you want to share?

I am a volunteer tutor. The parent of one little girl I’m tutoring informed me that her six year old daughter made all A’s in reading, writing, phonics, and language arts on her first report card of the school year in which she credited a lot of the success to me. The mom said her daughter’s teacher was so impressed that she not only accomplished, but surpassed her reading goals!

In addition, I am writing a series of standard based children’s books (illustrated by my husband!), focusing on love, compassion, friendship, teamwork, confidence, grit and determination filled with primarily sight words and really cool illustrations bursting with color to promote confidence and independency. This project was inspired by the experience of homeschooling my daughter in the beginning of the pandemic, and by my own childhood love of reading. I am so excited that “Princess and Softee” will be released in June 2022!

Thank you Mrs. Morris, for your amazing hard work on behalf of your students and community!