As soon as he set foot on the campus of Michigan State University, Chris Waston knew that he had the potential to become a role model and leader for elementary and middle school students. Combining his energetic personality with a fresh approach to teaching, the 2011 education graduate was able to create a big impact among one group of students in particular: urban youth.
Highly successful during his internship year at Bates Academy in Detroit Public Schools, Waston was encouraged by his mentor teacher, Robin Howard, to enter the 2012 Michigan Student Teacher/Intern of the Year competition from the Michigan Association of Teacher Educators (MATE). Although hundreds of student teachers across the state enter the competition, only one was selected to win — and this year, it was Waston.
Waston’s winning lesson plan, which aimed to teach third-graders about action verbs, incorporated a variety of different elements, including visual presentations, worksheets and even a rap song that involved actions and movements. When Waston put his lesson plan into action, he said that his class thoroughly enjoyed it — especially when it came to jumping and clapping to the song.
“It’s important to make teaching interactive and fun because kids don’t want to do things that don’t interest them,” Waston said. “They’re able to grasp a deeper understanding of the material if it’s memorable and relevant to their lives.”
Before coming to MSU, Waston himself attended Detroit Public Schools. As a student at Renaissance High School, he volunteered as a math tutor for sixth and seventh grade students. Waston said that math was always his strong point, but that the best part of tutoring was to see students understand the material based on what he told them. This sparked his interest in teaching, coupled with teachers that had inspired him in the past.
But it wasn’t until he participated in MSU’s Summer High School Scholars Program — a four-week retreat to the MSU campus that helps prospective students gain college academic skills and information about careers in education — that Waston realized his potential to become an agent of change in urban education.
“When I went to the program, it was the first time I was able to look critically at education as a whole, or see the faults,” Waston said. “I was fortunate enough to attend a school in which 95 percent of the students went on to college, but I was also frustrated how these experiences weren’t being translated to everyone, especially in urban areas. Between standardized testing and an unfair achievement gap, I knew I needed to do something about this.”
And he did.
Only a year into his education at MSU, Waston co-founded the Black Males in Education Network (BMEN), in which members conduct research, create outreach programs and serve as mentors for young black males in urban areas. The members of BMEN realized that there was a need for this level of engagement based on their finding that less than two percent of teachers in the U.S. are black males.
Now an award-winning student organization, BMEN has built several relationships, including partnerships with the MSU University Outreach and Engagement Department and the Young Educators Society (YES) of Michigan, for which they make regular presentations around the state.
The Spartan Years
Waston also went through MSU’s Urban Educators Cohort Program, and completed the Urban Immersion Fellowship. A recipient of the Broad Future Teacher Award, Waston has also committed himself to teaching in Detroit for at least three years after his internship year.
Reflecting on his experiences at MSU, Waston said that the rigorous coursework of the education program, the opportunities to teach in urban areas and the encouragement from his own mentors – including Dr. Sonya Gunnings-Moton, Dr. Curtis Lewis and his field instructor Grace Vereen – contributed greatly to the shaping of his teaching pedagogy.
Gunnings-Moton, assistant dean for student support services and recruitment in the MSU College of Education, first met Waston when he was a scholar in the summer high school program. Looking back, she says that Waston is a constant reminder of why the college’s work is so critical.
“Chris is an exemplary model of what we hoped we would accomplish in our Urban Education pipeline initiative,” Gunnings-Moton said. “He’s been one of those young men whose success is not only about a pride we have within the college, but he represents a personal pride as well. With my role in the college, I’ve been fortunate to see students move through the program — but Chris is one of those students who has moved me.”