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Sonya Stinson is one of those teachers that you hate at the beginning of the year, but love at the end.
You know what we’re talking about – the kind of teacher who gives a lot of work, the kind of teacher who holds you accountable for your actions, and, ultimately, the teacher who pushes you to be the best version of yourself. So, at the end of the year you look back and think, “Wow, did I do all that?”
More than once conversations between students have been overheard saying things like: “Oh yeah, Ms. Sonya is hardcore, but everything she does is for a reason,” or “I never thought I could do it, but I did.”
It is exactly this, Sonya’s strong exterior and warm heart, that makes her the most perfect fit for Highlands Community Charter School.
While she spends the majority of her time checking assignments and grading essays, she has also been known to devote her off-the-clock-time to decluttering a student’s home or creating decorations for the upcoming prom.
Sonya, who grew up in Georgia, was not originally planning on being a teacher. In fact, she completed several semesters of college for nursing and even pre-med before she decided to pursue a career in teaching.
“When I told my parents I wanted to switch to English and become a teacher, my dad said, ‘I can’t believe you’re going to be a teacher. You’re going to waste your brain,’” Sonya recalls, “but I didn’t care. I’m very opinionated, and I have always been that way. So he wasn’t going to change my mind.”
This wasn’t the first time Sonya stepped away from the norms of life in Georgia and what her parents expected of her. Another instance was in her junior year of high school when Sonya decided to move to Brazil.
“I called my dad when I got home and was like, ‘Hey dad…what’re you doing?’ And he was like, ‘Oh, I’m at the White Sox game.’ And I was like, ‘Oh…how we doing? We winning?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, we’re up by three.’ And I was like, ‘Oh good, in that case, I’m going to Brazil.’”
Although this adventure set Sonya back one year in high school – because of credit transfer technicalities – she said if given the opportunity, she would do it all over again.
“When I left to move there after my 16th birthday, I only knew two words [in Portuguese]: hi and thank you,” Sonya said. “When I came back though, I could not even remember some English words because I was so immersed there; it was such a small town there that they really didn’t speak any English.”
Sonya said spending a year in Brazil really helped her to become comfortable in her own skin.
“I was a really awkward teenager: like ugly duckling story. I was really chubby. I was a big tomboy. I wore baggy clothes every day. I was in sports. All that stuff,” she said. “But when I went there, I kind of learned how to be a girl.”
Her final act of rebellion landed her here in Sacramento and at Highlands.
“I went through a terrible break-up, and I just decided I was done with that town. I spoke to my best friend who lived in Sacramento already, and she joked that I should just move in with her. Two weeks later I packed up my car and moved in. I didn’t have a job lined up or anything, but I landed one on my first day in Sacramento and have been here for 5 years now.”
Truthfully, Sonya has taught it all: pre-school all the way up to the collegiate level. In fact, Sonya said she didn’t think she would like working with adults until she started at Highlands.
“When I started working here, it changed my perspective…I was like, ‘Okay there are some pretty amazing people out there.’ Even if they’re not always respectful or do some crazy stuff sometimes, they’re still interesting. Everyone has a story, everybody has something to offer and to teach,” she said.
Having worked at low-income elementary schools through the New Teacher Project, Sonya understands how Highlands simply continues her professional journey.
“It’s interesting to see life from the adult side, because I have been teaching kids for so long, and I don’t know what ever happened to any of them. Like did they ever graduate?,” she said. “At the schools I taught at, in Louisiana, only 1 and 5 would graduate [from high school] – and so a lot of times they end up dead or in jail. But now, it’s like, even if they did drop out, maybe they can still finish their degree in a place like this at Highlands.”