Cassaundra Walker, a newly appointed Title III English Language Development Coordinator for Jenks Public Schools, has been named the BancFirst ESL Teacher of the Year by the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence, a statewide nonprofit that recognizes and encourages academic excellence in public schools.
The $3,000 award sponsored by BancFirst recognizes an exceptional Oklahoma English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) teacher who has participated in the foundation’s Teachers of English Learners Project and has demonstrated exemplary professionalism and practice in teaching English Learner students.
Walker, a Broken Arrow resident who recently served as Bixby Public Schools’ EL coordinator and an English Learner teacher at Bixby Middle School, was nominated for the award by Bixby district administrators. The award was presented Aug. 16 at the Bixby Public Schools Administration Building, where Walker was recognized by colleagues from both districts as well as representatives from BancFirst and the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence.
“English Learner teachers get to try on a new hat every day – actor, linguist, singer, artist, technical support and my favorite – tour guide,” said Walker, describing how she had edited her middle school’s map last year to include the languages of her students and spotlighting her classroom so EL students knew where to go for help.
Walker traces her love for teaching and learning language back to her childhood when she was selected by her fifth-grade teacher to become a buddy with a new student from Mexico.
“We would trade words in English and Spanish with each other at lunch, sing songs we learned, or draw pictures to communicate with each other at first,” she recalls. “My fifth-grade buddy and I graduated together and are still friends today. Becoming a ‘buddy’ was my first experience with teaching and learning simultaneously. I knew then that teaching could be in my future.”
As an undergraduate English student at Northeastern State University, Walker earned her certificate to teach ESL and developed her Spanish language proficiency. She was “hooked on helping others,” volunteering to tutor exchange students and teach ESL classes at a local church. Her journey as an ESL educator later led her to teach English kindergarten for three years in Asia, to run ESL classes for inmates at the David L. Moss Criminal Justice Center in Tulsa, and to serve as an adjunct instructor at Tulsa Community College guiding adults through grammar and speaking classes. Walker, who earned a master’s degree in English from Oklahoma State University with a Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) focus, has taught in Bixby for the past seven years, with the last five dedicated to both teaching a coordinating the EL Program.
More than 800 educators from 104 districts who participated in the Teachers of English Learners Pilot Project in 2020-21 were eligible to be nominated for the BancFirst Teacher of the Year Award. Criteria for selection included demonstrated commitment to professional learning; professional practice; knowledge sharing; teacher leadership; parent, family and community engagement and communication; student growth; and effective use of technology.
Bixby colleagues praised Walker as a role model who goes above and beyond in her work as an ESL teacher and trusted resource to fellow teachers and families.
“As an ESL teacher and EL Coordinator, Cassaundra is constantly researching best practices and participating in professional learning,” her administrators wrote in their nomination. “In perhaps her most impactful skill, she shares these strategies with classroom teacher colleagues and EL teachers to help improve their content presentations. Her dedication to improving environments for her students outside her personal classroom illustrates her commitment to improving all aspects of her students’ experience.”
Walker has reached out to surrounding school districts to develop a list of resources and ideas to support classroom teachers in meeting the needs of their EL students. She also developed an outreach plan with the local YWCA to provide information sessions for the parents of Bixby immigrant students. When EL students were faced with the challenges of adapting to new Chromebook computers and distance learning during the pandemic, Walker tailored lessons to fit each student’s needs and make them comfortable with the technology and skills needed to operate in a digital world.
“The Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence is proud to partner with BancFirst in presenting the ESL Teacher of the Year Award to Cassaundra Walker,” said Executive Director Emily Stratton. “Her commitment to supporting English Learner students and their families and to sharing ideas and best practices with fellow educators is second to none.”
Walker was one of many Oklahoma educators who participated in the foundation’s Teachers of English Learner Project, which uses a collaborative online platform to provide professional development, networking and support for classroom teachers in schools with high enrollment of EL students. The project, which recently completed its pilot phase, is now available to teachers statewide on the Oklahoma State Department of Education Oklahoma EDGE website at https://osdeconnect.ok.gov. The platform includes an ESL Certification Test prep course.
“Nearly 60,000 students in Oklahoma’s public schools do not speak English as their first language, presenting a challenge for classroom teachers who often do not have the training or resources to effectively integrate English Learners into their classroom activities,” said Lisa Pryor, Teachers of English Learners project manager. “As part of our teacher professional development activities, the foundation created the Teachers of English Learners Project to provide an anytime, anyplace professional learning hub for classroom teachers committed to providing quality instruction for their English Learners.”
Walker said she has been fortunate to have an EL team in her districts to collaborate with, but not all educators in the field are that lucky.
“Being an English language teacher can be quite isolating,” she said. “That’s why professional learning communities, like those fostered by the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence, are so important. They provide teachers with a feeling of value and belonging – a place to be heard, to learn, connect and grow.”