Enthusiasm practically bubbles out the door of Ashley Hinton’s second grade classroom, which is understandable because she comes from a family of teachers — her great-grandfather, both of her grandmothers, her mother and her aunts have all been teachers. But Hinton set off on a different path when she headed to college, in part because there were so many teachers in her family.
“I never really wanted to be a teacher. I went to school for marketing and I changed my major multiple times. I was a political science major, then I switched to business for marketing and I did a poli sci minor, a history minor and finally my parents were like, you have to graduate. I think I kept changing majors because I love learning.”
She spent her college summers working as a camp counselor, and a chance comment caused her to reconsider what she wanted to do with her life.
“I worked there three summers and a woman came up to me one day, and she'd seen me with my group of girls. I was a unit leader, so I was leading a lesson for 50 girls. She came up to me and said, I don't know what you want to do or what you're going to school for, but this is what you should be doing. … You need to teach children, this is what you should be doing. I remember telling my parents, I think I want to be a teacher.”
Her parents feared Hinton was going to change her major yet again — she was already on the five-year plan — but she stayed the course, graduating cum laude from N.C. State University, and looked for an alternative route into teaching. The D.C. Teaching Fellows program was her answer. Hinton was accepted into the program; landed a job teaching in a Washington, D.C., school that some might consider a challenging assignment; attended graduate school two nights a week; and earned an M.A.T. magna cum laude from American University.
“I was 23 and I [felt like] yay, I can be a teacher, I can do this. Looking back, [I think] you weren't highly qualified, what were you thinking, you didn't know what you were doing. I remember being kind of scared a few nights before. Can I do this? I'm going to have a class of first-grade babies — they are going to need to learn to read. What was I thinking? That first year was both inspiring and humbling.”
What Hinton lacked in teacher preparation, “I think I made up for with creativity and determination and passion. I sincerely was so passionate about doing as best I could for those kids. Those kids in my first year, you never forget your first class. They teach you to be a teacher and they teach you a lot more than being a teacher. I was really lucky, I had teachers that looked out for me, came in and checked on me. Since I was first grade, I was on the hall with pre-k teachers and kindergarten teachers. That's just salt-of-the-earth, good people, if you can work with little babies. They took care of me.”
Hinton has been teaching for 10 years — three years in D.C. and four years at a charter school in New Jersey before arriving at Durham Academy in 2015 to teach second grade. “Ten years in teaching is crazy — you never think you're going to make it past your first year! And then you do, and you're like oh my goodness.”
Hinton grew up in Raleigh, attending magnet schools from elementary through high school.
“I went to Washington Elementary, I was a Wizard. I still love it, I still think it's like the best. I just remember it was really an important time of my life because of the elective programs that they had. I took classes on birdwatching. I took classes on being a young entrepreneur, and we designed a clipboard with wizards on it and sold it to the school, that was our project. I took stage makeup and I can still remember making someone's face into a lizard.”
In middle school and high school, “I got to focus so much on drama and chorus and art classes. I took any drawing class, any mixed media class, any pottery class. I did drama. I wasn't the best, but I did it because I loved it. And I think that plays into me as a teacher, too. I think teachers are actors, so that that definitely helps me.
“I think who I am as a teacher is shaped so much by who I was as a student. Being able to explore a ton of interests, I think made me a creative person. It's where I got to flourish and be interested and engaged, and I never felt pigeonholed. I think that's why I had a hard time when I went to college with what do I want to do, because I love so many things. I think I just love being a learner.
“I think that's why I like teaching. I learn something new every day because I want to know what they [her students] want to learn. They all want to learn something different than what I might know, so I'm trying to learn and research with them. If I reflect on who I am as a teacher and why I love teaching, I think it's because I loved being a student. That experience of just asking questions and researching and figuring stuff out. It’s really fun to kind of see what their passions are and bring that to the classroom.”
Hinton was delighted to return to the classroom full time at DA after serving as dean of curriculum and instruction at her charter school in New Jersey. “That stretched another part of me, really makes you think why do you do what you do as a teacher, why you are making certain choices and what do you do in the moment. … That was a really cool experience, but I really missed the classroom. I think that's where I'm the happiest, when I'm with my kids and when I know a group of kids really well.”
It reminds her of going out with her grandmothers and “seeing them see all these children and communities that are now adults and have grandbabies. They taught the parents and their children and grandchildren.”
Hinton’s first class of DA second-graders will finish fourth grade this year. “I'm excited because they're going to the Middle School. I know they're going to be doing sports and I can go over to the Middle School and watch. Hopefully, I can keep those relationships with the kids that I've taught.”
She already connects with students outside the classroom through after-school enrichments, teaching sewing to third- and fourth-graders and quilting to fourth-graders. Hinton was exposed to sewing when she made a quilt as a seventh-grader, but it wasn’t until she was teaching in New Jersey that quilting became a passion.
“I probably made 30 quilts when I lived in New Jersey. I was making quilts, making quilts. I loved it. Every night, every weekend, I was quilting or taking pictures of quilts or buying fabric. When I moved here, it's so funny because it's almost like, switch, I feel like I've been able to pour so much creativity into the classroom. I feel so excited to think about things to do here and with the kids that I'm not quilting as much personally. I've made way fewer quilts over the last three years, which is so funny.”
One of Hinton’s favorite things is watching her enrichment kids sew and make quilts. “We'll learn something and then a kid will bring me a bag that she’s made and picked out fabric for. We'll learn something and they'll make me a scarf. They know I like crafting, and it's so sweet to see them doing something. That's why I create. I love to give quilts to people. I have very few of mine that I've made that I continue to keep.”
Another passion is cats. “I’m a crazy cat lady!” Hinton and her husband, Forrest, have two gray tabbies, Sir Cabernet and Mr. Merlot, more commonly known as Cab and Merle. At the beginning of the school year, she warns the parents of her second-graders, “if your kids don't like cats now, by the end of the year they're going to like cats. I'm really sorry, you might have to get one.”
The parents likely take it all in stride.
“I think one of my favorite things about being here is being able to form relationships not only with the kids, but with the families. I think I've really learned, too, over the years of being a teacher, the importance of partnering with parents and learning what are their hopes, but also where are they coming from, who are they and who are their families. I've just been so lucky with the families that I've had, and it's super fun now too because I'm repeating families. I've got five younger siblings this year.
Knowing them well means knowing their families, too. “It's just fun to see those parents that you already know and you got to have that relationship with them. They trusted you with their first kid or their second kid. And now you get the second or the third or the fourth. That's my favorite. I like having that relationship. It's great.”