The Salem School Division Teacher of the Year for 2018 has influenced students in detention centers, jails and college classrooms during her career, but she garners Salem’s top teacher honor for the tremendous work she does with middle school students at Andrew Lewis.
“I cried like a baby when I got this news,” says Sonnya Preston, Andrew Lewis Business and Information Technology teacher. “I have constantly had to battle the generational poverty mindset in my life and to now be able to combat that with this amazing honor is huge for me, my family and my students.”
Preston grew up in Roanoke and attended Virginia Heights Elementary and Woodrow Wilson Middle before graduating from Patrick Henry High School. During her formative years, teachers at each level of her education provided her with encouragement and inspiration.
“Education saved my life,” says Preston. “I spent my middle school years on Harrison Avenue and around that time, drugs were starting to make their way into our community. Right before my very own eyes, I watched our family-oriented neighborhood transform into a jungle. I watched some of my friends go to jail and some of them even died, and the only way that I knew to escape this was through education.”
Preston says the theme for her life has been “in the nick of time.” Whenever she was ready to give up, take a shortcut or make a wrong turn, an educator was always in the right place at the right time to keep her on the correct path.
“Now, it’s my turn to be a beacon of hope to kids who feel lost,” she says. “Overall, the students respect me because I am very real with them. I try to bring experiences to the classroom that are applicable in the real world, and for some reason my realness has turned into them considering me the cool teacher.”
Preston is skilled in both Windows and Apple-based systems, as well as coding. Her students in grades sixth through eighth have opportunities to master everything from video production to the suite of Adobe design programs. This year, they are learning what it takes to own and operate their own businesses.
“We are incredibly fortunate to have Sonnya as part of our family at Andrew Lewis Middle,” says Principal Jamie Garst. “Her love and passion for teaching children are evident on a daily basis. Whether collaborating with a teacher or working one-on-one with a student, Sonnya has a tremendous amount of grit and determination to help kids succeed.”
If Harrison Avenue did not infuse her with that grit and determination, those traits certainly took hold while she was working with a variety of learners in a detention center, an in-school suspension program and at an at-risk school in South Carolina.
“At the detention center we had a zero tolerance policy and I picked up strategies there concerning discipline that are applicable everywhere,” she says. “In South Carolina, I taught in a building that was surrounded by Jesse Jackson townhomes. School let out at 2:30 p.m. and I was still in the classroom with them at 5 p.m. because school was their safe haven. Those kids just wanted someone to love them.”
Preston truly understands children wanting to belong and feel comfortable. She admits that during her middle school days that she was the quiet kid in the back of the room who did not have the confidence to ask a question.
“Because of that, I am trying to instill some self-esteem in these kids,” she says. “What we are doing is practical and career-oriented. It is very rewarding to see these students take to project-based learning and pick up skills that can be applied in the real world.”
Preston earned both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Virginia State University and she has completed all of the course work needed to secure her Doctorate of Instructional Technology degree with a minor in Educational Leadership. Before coming to Salem in 2005, she taught in Roanoke City and Greenville, South Carolina and was an adjunct faculty member at National Business College.
“Sonnya has the unique ability to reach even the most difficult children,” says Hunter Routt, Andrew Lewis Assistant Principal. “Her unique background and knowledge of children serve her well. She is a master of creating a loving and nurturing environment, while still holding her kids accountable and helping them become more-responsible citizens.”
“I have a lot of students who email me tell me that something I did or said helped them years later, and that’s where my excitement comes from in this job,” says Preston. “It encourages me to continue, in fact I still have relationships with students I used to teach at the jail and it is very fulfilling to see them get their lives on track, as well.”
The School Board will honor all six teachers of the year during a special reception on March 27. The other Teachers of the Year representing the five remaining Salem schools are:
Lisa Valentine, Kindergarten Teacher – G.W. Carver Elementary
Marcus Crowder, Third Grade Teacher – East Salem Elementary
Jeff Shupe, Culinary Arts Teacher – Salem High School
Samantha Schaffer, Fourth Grade Teacher – South Salem Elementary
Marty DeBord, Speech & Language Pathologist – West Salem Elementary