Traci Manuel: A Teacher with Heart
Traci Manuel dedicates countless hours and a lot of heart to creating and presenting interesting content that will engage and inspire young minds in her 10th grade English class at Booker T. Washington High School. Her heart for teaching has caught the attention of many (including me – she taught my son!). Recently, she was one of 12 teachers in Oklahoma nominated for the 2023 Teacher of the Year. Despite the demanding work, long hours and low pay, Manuel talks about the reasons for choosing her profession and offers advice for those considering a teaching career.
Manuel: As a young girl, my grandmother, who was a devoted English teacher and dean, would always stop me in mid-sentence and say, “Behind that preposition.” I would begin to talk again, and she would say in a stern, fiery voice, “You cannot end your thoughts with a preposition at the end. You need to sit down and understand the English language.” Needless to say, I had to develop tough skin at a young age when articulating my thoughts because my entire village was full of strong educators who demanded the best at all times and gave me skills that would one day make me an effective teacher.
Then came my senior year in high school. I knew the next step was college because this was the expectation in my family. However, I came across an advisor who did not believe the same for me. I went into the advisor’s office during a lunch break to sit down and discuss my college options, and she told me that I did not have any options for where I wanted to go. I was broken, discouraged and ready to throw in the towel. However, my mentor, Mrs. Joe Bright, director of North Mabee Boys and Girls Club, explained in our weekly pep talk, “You can’t let one person determine your future. You are going to have to do the research, write your plan of action, take the ACT prep classes and begin making it happen. Let’s get to work.” She did not show me any sympathy; she continued to push me to believe in the unbelievable.
Three months later, after writing tedious college entrance essays every night and filling out scholarships while helping young people at the North Mabee, I won national presidential scholarships and local scholarships, received acceptances to several colleges and spoke at the Governor’s Mansion. It was all because of that tough skin of resilience that my village helped me develop along the way. With the help that was given to me, I, too, wanted to continue to pass the torch of learning and encouragement to the young minds of today.
TK: You didn’t major in education in college. Can you share the path you took to becoming an educator?
Manuel: On my road to becoming a teacher, I have taken the road that Robert Frost discussed in the poem, The Road Not Taken. Unlike many of my colleagues who majored in elementary or secondary education with a particular emphasis, and are truly extraordinary in the profession, I don’t share the same path. I majored in English Literature, substituted for a month in TPS, and accepted a graduate assistantship through the Ronald McNair Scholars Program to pursue my master’s full-time. While studying the Achievement Gap, I discovered my purpose was to teach.
From there, I returned to Oklahoma, accepting a long-term substitute position and later a teacher’s assistant, parent facilitator and finally a classroom English teacher. Just like I took a different path less traveled to become a teacher, I desire to inspire my students to take that path in learning to unlock their potential. Taking a different path for me has made all the difference in my teaching career.
TK: I know you enjoy meaningful quotes. Can you share your favorite quote and why it’s your favorite?
Manuel: A great activist, Fredrick Douglass, once said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” This quote has always been one of my favorites because it inspires me to rise above my challenges and use my personal faith to see that there is always hope even in bleak times. I truly enjoy quotes because they are small tools that can inspire individuals.
My daily class farewell quote to students at Booker T. Washington [known as “The Hive”]: A first impression can be a lasting impression, so make the impression you want someone to see of you at the Hive today. Have a great day.
TK: How do you approach your job on difficult days?
Manuel: When those light bulbs of learning come on for all children, it inspires me because it allows me to know that I have developed a method that has contributed to that child’s intellectual growth.
For example, I had a student in one of my early years of teaching repeat the seventh grade. This student told me he did not want to take reading, and, in fact, he hated me for trying to make him do something he proclaimed to already know. I told him that I understood, but he still needed to come to class daily with his materials ready to learn. I informed him that I wanted to have fun and help him get out of a class that he did not need on his schedule.
This student’s Lexile Reading score was a 220, which indicated he was almost five years below his grade level. This student still did everything he could to do the opposite of what I instructed him. He showed up late and refused to do classwork; nevertheless, I had high expectations, so once he saw I was not lowering my expectations, he actively participated and enjoyed it.
Then one day the counselor came to get him so he could take his SRI Reading Exam to see if his Lexile score had increased. The student said, “Mrs. Manuel, I am going to reach my goal.” About an hour later, the same student who dreaded coming to class raced around the corner telling me he had achieved a score of a 600. His score indicated that he grew three grade levels.
[That challenge and others like it] are what keep me returning to teaching on a daily basis. I tell them that no matter how hard school seems, that I will never give up on them. Many students started upholding the daily 3 Ds of desire, discipline and dedication when they saw their growth. The students began to believe they could achieve, especially when the principal showed up to the classroom to inform them that we have made one of the highest reading growths in the school.
TK: Congratulations on being nominated for 2023 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year! Can you share what you think contributed to your nomination?
Manuel: Being in the teaching profession has always helped me to understand my goal is to be a life-long learner who builds and serves my students, colleagues and the school community. My job never ends at 3:35 p.m. I have always had an after-school club meeting, tutoring, planning for a school event, assisting seniors with college admissions, partnering with community organizations for service-learning opportunities, coaching and guiding new teachers in classroom management or curriculum needs, meeting with parents or athletic concessions.
I believe that the only way to unlock the doors for my kids is by first showing them that I am a dedicated servant to them and the schools I have called home over the years. Kids commonly ask me if I ever go home. I laugh, but I make sure that they have every need met before I dart out the door. If I cannot reach a parent, it is not uncommon for me to do a home visit or show up to their church/community events in love and support.
I show my students that in order to win, they must work hard by setting and achieving their daily and yearly goals. My dedication of service has always extended beyond the four walls of the classroom, and this is why I believe I was nominated for teacher of the year.
TK: What advice would you give to students thinking about pursuing a career in teaching?
Manuel: Young people who are thinking about pursuing a career in teaching make my heart happy because they clearly have a passion to help give back to the next generation. I believe it is the most rewarding profession offered to mankind. Being an effective teacher is a calling, and an individual must possess desire, discipline and dedication to be prepared for the daily classroom. It is important for one to be their best because we work with delicate minds that are still in the developmental process.
Also, one should keep in mind that an impactful teacher cannot just be strong in their content mastery but must be skilled in multiple areas. These areas [include] effectiveness in communication, conflict resolution, relationship building, loving and accepting all children, being a team player, detailed planning, organizational skills, [knowing how to be an] emotional stabilizer and classroom management, just to name a few.
One who has the above skillsets will be a success as a teacher because they will one day have successors who walk in their footsteps as a teacher to either one day teach or will give back to the causes in education.
TK: When you’re not working, what do you and your family like to do around Tulsa?
Manuel: My husband, Brad, our two kiddos, Noah (11), Nilsen (4) and I love being outside attending events on Greenwood, Tulsa Arts District, Tulsa Zoo, FC Tulsa games and Guthrie Green. On weekends, we love to watch movies at AMC/Cinema 8, be active with our church family, see shows at the PAC, hang out at Barnes & Noble and participate in taekwondo events. Of course, one of our favorites is following the TulsaKids calendar to see all the weekend events, especially at the Tulsa City-County Libraries.
Some of our favorite parks, where the entire family plays on the playground and swings, are Owen, Whiteside and BS Roberts.
At home, the family loves roasting marshmallows, playing frisbee and downtime together.
TK: Wrap-up! Anything else you’d like to share?
Manuel: I am excited about some events I have planned in 2023 to celebrate everyday teachers in the classroom and want this event to encourage novice teachers around the City of Tulsa who are making a difference in the lives of students. If you are interested in learning more, including how you can help support these efforts, please contact me at email@example.com.
Mrs. Manuel speaks honestly about having a son with special needs and shares her perspective on how this has helped her in life and in the classroom on the Sharing Passion and Purpose Podcast. Listen your favorite app or directly at sharingpassionandpurpose.com.