For Anita Lyons, teaching school is more than just a day-to-day job.
Recently named English as Second Language Teacher of the Year for 2001, the Sharpstown Middle School ESL instructor is renowned for bringing together education and community outreach programs.
By connecting students’ education with the larger community, she has gained prominence among professional educators and accolades from students and parents alike.
Lyons was given the honor by the the Texas Association for Bilingual Education during its annual conference, held in October in Dallas.
Association president Jose Hernandez said Lyons’ determination and commitment to success are among the qualities that distinguished her as a ESL Teacher of the Year candidate.
“Ms. Lyons is an innovative teacher who will not let a different language stop her students from learning,” Hernandez said. “She is an educator who is committed to each student who enters her classroom and ensures that each is academically successful.
“Her lessons include role-playing, research and even building models to ensure that every student is learning the concepts required. Ms. Lyons takes her instruction even further by linking classroom instruction with community-oriented activities. She will find contests, citywide festivals or museums for her students to visit and experience the required curriculum,” Hernandez said.
Each year, Lyons and her students assist with events ranging from the Houston International Festival and Ed White Field Day to Chase Bank Global Days of Service. They work cleaning Galveston beaches, assisting Habitat for Humanity and helping the city of Houston with a neighborhood carnival.
For Lyons, these extensions of the classroom are opportunities for students to learn English while giving back to the community.
“I believe that to make language learning real and useful, a person has to go out into the community and use what he has learned,” she said.
Such activities are a building block for learning throughout the community, Lyons said.
“If we give back to the community where we live, we are always educating the future generations by being role models, and inspiring everyone around us – the people we serve as well as the little ones coming behind us. And it feels good to make a difference in other people’s lives,” Lyons said.
Sharpstown Middle School Principal Margo Bullock has worked with Lyons since 1988, when she hired Lyons to teach at Ed White Elementary School.
“She is one of the most charismatic people I’ve ever seen in the classroom,” Bullock said. “She was instrumental in revitalizing the Asian community at Sharpstown Middle School and getting (people from this community) to participate in after-school programs and manage weekly meetings.”
Bilingual education is crucial at Sharpstown Middle School, which has students from more than 60 nations.
“My students are Level 1 language learners, so they come right from immigration to me – a new country, new foods, new clothes, new customs – everything. They inspire me with their courage. They are awesome,” Lyons said.
Hernandez said ESL is not the perfect solution for immigrant students but still meets the needs of those who live in a home where the primary language is not English.
“Of course, in the ideal situation, every student would benefit from a bilingual program in which they are taught in their native language. As we know, with over 100 different languages, this is not possible. Therefore, ESL instruction meets a very critical need for these second language learners,” Hernandez said.
ESL is particularly helpful to younger students, Hernandez said.
“ESL instruction in the primary grades assists the younger students in the acquisition of a second language without interruption to the attainment of cognitive skills. The true ESL classroom is rich with oral language instruction and is a tremendous complement to the bilingual program,” Hernandez said.
Lyons teaches five ESL classes and the yearbook/journalism class. She is an advocate and participant in the Annenberg Challenge program, which has a mission that matches her support for community- and family-oriented education.
“Annenberg has made a huge difference in our school. The grant has given us effective tools to communicate with our children and each other. It has provided incredible opportunities for professional development which directly impact our students and parents,” she said.
Interactive portions of the Annenberg Challenge are designed to break down communication barriers between the public schools and the communities they serve. The Houston Annenberg Challenge is a not-for-profit public-private partnership that uses private funds dedicated to public school reform. The program is part of a nationwide program announced in 1993 by Ambassador Walter H. Annenberg, a successful businessman and U.S. ambassador who dedicated $ 500 million toward improving public schools.
“The Annenberg Challenge program for Sharpstown middle and high schools is to establish collaborative projects with teachers, parents, students and businesses to work together to increase student achievement,” Lyons said. “Our objectives are to open this school up to the community so that we are not a deep, dark secret full of misunderstood teenagers. In that respect, we have met the (program’s) objectives.”
Sharpstown Middle School received an Annenberg planning grant in 1997. Lyons’ participation included organizing the collection of some 1,600 surveys related to education from area residents and businesses. The Annenberg committee she heads meets in area businesses, giving Lyons the opportunity to share an Annenberg-funded school newsletter and build relationships between the business community and the school.
In another part of this program, parents are invited to computer classes and shown ways to help their children with homework.
Originally a speech therapist, Lyons has taught language since beginning her teaching career in 1981. Lyons was born in Panama and reared in Dallas. She earned a bachelor’s degree in speech pathology/audiology from Baylor University and a master’s degree with certification in special education from Penn State University. She also received kindergarten ESL certification from Houston Baptist University.
Lyons recognized her career desires at an early age.
“I knew I wanted to work with children when I was 8 years old,” she said. “I saw a speech therapist giving a hearing test and I said that that was what I wanted to do.”
She taught as the speech therapist in Bellefonte, Pa., for six years, then quit to raise her two sons.
As a speech therapist, she said, “I have taught 6-month-old babies all the way up to 60-year-old aphasic (U.S. military) veterans.”
She eventually returned to teaching, starting as a substitute, with plans to add to her workload as her sons moved to higher grades. She was participating in PTO work at her sons’ school when Bullock, the principal, asked her to take a new kindergarten class for the day.