Walking through the doors of the Ron Clark Academy is an uplifting experience. As you enter the front entrance there is a two-story electric blue slide that visitors are encouraged to slide down to display their willingness to be bold and courageous.
An array of vibrant colors and elaborately themed classrooms radiate positive energy throughout the building, and hundreds of large pictures of beaming students line the hallways of this groundbreaking middle school in the heart of Atlanta.
But within the walls of this one-of-a-kind, educational establishment lies a rare and unique gem: a woman whose accomplishments reveal the brilliance of a creative genius with a highly intellectual mind. Her name is Dr. Valerie Camille Jones – affectionately known as Dr. J to her students and colleagues.
“I’m a firm believer that if you’re going to teach or lead others, you have to set the example,” said Dr. Jones in a sit-down interview with UrbanGeekz. “[If] you tell kids all the time to be themselves [but] you’re too afraid to be yourself then you’re not being honest with your students.”
Originally hailing from Naperville, Illinois, Jones journeyed to Atlanta to earn her Bachelor of Science Degree in Mathematics at the illustrious Spelman College. Deciding to pursue teaching, she spent 7 years as an educator within the Atlanta Public School system where she was recognized as Teacher of the Year.
Dr. Jones was recently awarded The Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, which is the highest level of recognition in the U.S for a math teacher. Awardees serve as models for their colleagues, inspiration to their communities, and leaders in the improvement of mathematics and science education.
When asked about how she felt about receiving such an esteemed honor, she said, “It’s truly humbling. It makes me strive to be better – to be a constant learner to live up to the standards that award stands for and live up to what it represents”.
This latest accolade is a culmination of 16 years as an educator, administrator, teacher trainer, and tutor. That level of recognition could land Dr. Jones a job anywhere. But what drives Dr. Jones is not accolades but connecting to her students on a cultural and personal level so that math becomes applicable to their lives.
She has served for five years as a Pre-algebra, Algebra 1, and Geometry teacher for sixth through eighth graders at the Ron Clark Academy. The private, non-profit, which teaches grades five through eight, is notorious for its pioneering teaching methods. Jones uses a flipped classroom teaching model and incorporates performing arts, real-world connections, and video games into lessons.
Dr. Jones is very much a concoction of a gamer, movie buff, Comic Con fanatic, fashionista, self-proclaimed “geek” and a lover of dance. Staying true to who she is, she uses these elements of her life and personality to enhance her teaching style.
Teaching is a deeply personal experience for Jones. In elementary school, she noticed that she had a tendency to reverse letters and numbers. “In middle school is when I noticed it. If I wasn’t really concentrating I would think 12 was 21”.
“I can’t be diagnosed [as dyslexic],” Jones thought to herself, “So I just focused and focused but there were times I would still switch the numbers. I could do the math in my head [and would get the correct answer] but I would get the problems wrong because I would switch the numbers in the answer.”
The process for Jones was frustrating but she didn’t confide in her teachers because she didn’t have a personal connection to her educators. She attended suburban public schools up until college and was often one of only a handful of African-American students.
Things changed when she entered high school and took Algebra. She had a phenomenal teacher who took the time to connect with her as an individual. “She made me realize that Algebra was like a puzzle and I love logic puzzles. The fact that you had to figure out what the answer was by manipulating this equation just spoke to me.” By the end of the year, Jones was excelling and even tutoring her peers.
Her passion for teaching was sparked while in high school through a new teaching class offered in her senior year. In this class, she was required to observe an elementary teacher in the classroom but the teacher she was observing told her that she herself “ would be teaching in 2 weeks”.
That was the push that Jones needed. She put her lesson plan together, taught the class, and loved it. “Through my experiences tutoring my friends in Algebra II and loving this elementary school class, I realized I wanted to be a teacher”.
While at Spelman, Jones thrived because her lecturers not only made the content engaging but also encouraged her to have a sense of confidence and pride in her cultural heritage. “The teachers there were connected to me. They really spoke to me and they taught me about myself as a black woman.”
After Spelman, Jones attended Georgia State University and entered a program called TEEMS where she was able to earn her Master’s degree and her teaching certification in mathematics education. Through that educational program, Dr. Jones was equipped to teach in more creative ways using technology and gaming websites.
Dr. Jones continues to stay grounded in her first love of connecting math to her students in a culturally relevant way. Her popular website www.drvcjones.com is an outlet for the multi-talented math teacher to continue to make herself accessible to students who struggle in math.
Main Photo: Noble L. Woods
Follow Lararus Bruner Jr on Twitter@Lazarus_Bruner