What are two top traits in a teacher? “A caring personality and rock-solid knowledge of science.” That’s how science teacher Alison Walt was described in her Teacher of the Year nomination at Indian River High School.
“Mrs. Walt has the ability to build relationships with all students, but especially those struggling to find their place in the world,” according to one colleague. “Her caring demeanor, respect for all students and willingness to help students with personal issues, resulted in students regarding her as a mother figure, in addition to as a teacher.”
“As an administrator, I could never ask for more than what Mrs. Walt gives every day,” said Principal Bennett Murray.
“I want them to understand there’s somebody that cares about them,” said Walt, who teaches chemistry and physical science to grades 9, 11 and 12. “I want this class to be a place that they know that no one’s going to ridicule them. I just love them all, even when they get on my nerves,” she joked.
The motherly atmosphere is likely an extension of her own children and their friends visiting her classroom over the years as they completed their educations at IRHS. The classroom just became a safe haven for those who sought it.
Walt grew up in Dorchester County, Md., but after studying science at the University of Delaware, she began a doctorate program that was less than thrilling. Forget the doctorate, Walt decided — the best part about the Ph.D. program was teaching undergrads.
“It was just really fulfilling. I enjoyed interacting with the students and being able to share my knowledge with them,” she said.
With a bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry, she initially worked in Perdue labs, but then earned a teaching certification and began a 12-year career at Seaford High School. She leapfrogged a year at Epworth Christian School and has now finished her 14th year at Indian River.
Walt said she loves teaching science. It’s not all boring, but it’s not all explosions, she said. Even teaching the same lesson several times a day, Walt presents the material in different ways, and each class brings different questions.
“I just really enjoy when kids say … ‘I thought we were just having fun, and then I realized I learned all this stuff about science,’” Walt said. “I like challenging them, too. I’ve done all different levels. I’ve done AP down to the lowest level — we call them ‘tech’ — with special education.”
She said she loves learning, so she’s always reading to better understand and teach the lessons. (“I never stop reading about what I’m teaching,” she said.)
In education, the biggest challenges can be things that don’t relate to instruction (such as paperwork and testing) and sometimes the teaching itself (keeping the kids interested by comparing the sometimes-dry material to interesting topics, such as rollercoaster physics).
She had about 100 total students this year but has had as many as 160 in the past, which is a hefty load of grading.
Sometimes, she said, she wishes teenagers had more time to just be kids. They’re pulled in so many directions, in and out of school: in-school testing, after-school jobs, activities, sports matches that sometimes don’t end until 9 p.m. and more.
That’s why Walt assigns less homework than she used to — meaningful assignments, not busy-work.
“Sometimes we ask so much of them, and while I understand challenging them is important, I think them knowing that they’re important — not just because of what they can do for the schools — just in and of themselves, I think that’s important, too,” Walt said.
“I really do feel like parents nowadays maybe make their kids grow up too quick. Let ’em be kids,” she encouraged.
Since they put the kids first, Teachers of the Year don’t typically seek the spotlight.
“I’m usually up here as a supporting role for everybody,” said Walt.
She thanked all her students, because the award is based on her relationship with them. For Walt, earning a student nomination is just as meaningful as winning the award. She has been nominated previously, but this is her first win.
She also thanked colleagues Corinne Keller and Stacey Holladay, plus her former college classmate and IRHS colleague Kim Henry, who encouraged Walt to teach at IR.
Walt has been a leader in school and district science programs. When not in school, she enjoys reading, visiting her son at the University of Delaware and serving as a Mary Kay consultant.
She and other Teachers of the Year were honored at a school district celebration in April.