Victoria Carroll Pierson M.A.Ed. ’17, a 7th grade ESL teacher at Elkhardt-Thompson Middle School in Richmond, knew when she graduated with her master’s degree in teaching that she wanted to make an impact on students. She wanted to be an advocate. “Richmond seemed like a place where I could make that impact,” she said. Pierson is a past recipient of the James E. and Barbara B. Ukrop Richmond City Public School Teacher Scholarship, which was established to encourage William & Mary graduates to pursue teaching positions in Richmond Public Schools.
In her first year of teaching, she clearly did just that. She was recently honored as an Exemplary New Teacher for Richmond Public Schools — one of four recognized in the district at the secondary level.
“It was such an unexpected honor,” said Pierson. “I hear about teachers doing incredible things every day, and I am so humbled to be recognized for my efforts.”
With 75% of its student population qualifying for free or reduced lunch and a teacher turnover rate of nearly 20%, Richmond Public Schools needs committed and compassionate teachers like Pierson.
“Richmond Public Schools doesn’t have the best reputation,” said Pierson. “But my students are so incredible and resilient. I want to help build up that reputation because there are so many good people and good things happening in the district.”
Pierson estimates that about 10% of the students at Elkhardt-Thompson are English language learners (ELLs). She works with all of the ELLs in 7th grade, which means she has a caseload of about 40 students. She works closely with content teachers to help them adapt their teaching strategies and provide appropriate supports to these students.
“7th grade algebra isn’t easy for most students, but it’s especially tricky when you’re learning English at the same time,” she said.
Pierson started her master’s degree hoping to become a Spanish language teacher, but decided to add an ESL endorsement to her program. After a few classes focused on ESL and bilingual education, Pierson says she fell in love with it.
She credits the ESL program at William & Mary with giving her the knowledge, skills and confidence to start making an impact on her students right away. “I felt really prepared coming out of the program and had such a strong community of support as I started my first year of teaching,” she said.
That support was crucial for her as she navigated her first year, and she was grateful for the classmates and professors who were just a text or Facebook message away.
Elkhardt-Thompson is working to regain accreditation, which Pierson says requires a major effort from both the administration and the teachers. “Every teacher has to give 125% every day,” she said. “It’s a lot of data, assessments, and meetings. It’s draining, but so rewarding to see the growth in our students, and the progress we’ve all made over the course of the year.”
Pierson will return to Elkhardt-Thompson next year, and she’s already considering pursuing a Ph.D. in bilingual education in the future. She’s also honing her advocacy skills.
In her first year in Richmond, she made connections with local advocacy groups and was invited to join the district superintendent’s Teacher Advisory Council. This council, made up of 25 teachers from across the district, meets monthly to discuss issues that teachers are facing and how the district can respond to those needs. Pierson is particularly passionate about the need for a dual-language option for students in Richmond.
While she has a long list of plans and ideas for next year’s classes, she’s now enjoying her summer break and the chance to relax and re-energize. She says she misses her students, though, and is looking forward to being back in the classroom.
“The most surprising part of my first year of teaching was the sense of community — how much my students relied on me and how much I learned from them,” she said. “It felt like a family. I didn’t expect that level of trust and community.”