By Gail Kent, Photos Courtesy of Chesapeake Public Schools
When you walk into Daphne Fulson’s second grade classroom at Portlock Primary School in Chesapeake, the first thing you’ll notice is the full-length mirror. It isn’t there to check grooming, but to reflect her students’ self-worth and confidence. Circling the mirror’s edge are cards with affirmations: “I am smart.” “I am strong.” “I am loving.” “I am hard-working.”
Students face the mirror and give themselves positive messages to begin their days with the right attitude, Fulson says. “If you don’t have the right mindset and environment, then the students are not engaged and they’re not willing to make the hard choice to risk making mistakes.”
It’s this kind of creativity and commitment to developing the whole child that prompted Fulson’s selection as the school’s teacher of the year, the city’s teacher of the year, regional teacher of the year, and, in October, the 2022 Virginia Teacher of the Year.
Fulson’s dedication to uplifting children by building their self-esteem is the “secret sauce” that’s made her beloved and respected by students and fellow educators alike. Praising positive behavior is part of the mix. If a student returns quickly from a trip to the restroom, for example, she is praised.
“Tying behavior to academics allows students to develop intrinsic motivation,” she says. Rather than rewarding them with candy treats, which may not always be available, she emphasizes helping students see their own worth. “If you build an intrinsic motivation and your babies love the response they get—not only from their teacher but also their peers when they exhibit positive behavior—it makes for better work habits, a better work environment and a better learning environment in general. It’s very cool.”
The 33-year-old exudes excitement as she talks about her “babies” and “kiddos” and shares strategies for reaching their hearts and minds. Her smile radiates warmth and her eyebrows dance when she expresses her love for her students. Ideas for improving the classroom experience seem to explode from her like popcorn in a kettle.
One idea she’s implemented is working with her students on a children’s book—potentially for publication—called “Spots of Beauty Like Judy,” a story about a girl who has been bullied because she has a skin condition that causes discoloration. “We talk about how we feel ostracized sometimes and why people stare at us. Sometimes it’s because our hair or skin is different. The story affirms Judy’s beauty and helps the students feel good about themselves and others.”
Recently a teacher with such a skin condition visited her classroom and a student exclaimed, “She’s got spots of beauty, like Judy!” Fulson relates. “We got to say beautiful things about her, and I just started crying in the classroom, because I’m a crier.”
Fulson has turned every educational and work experience she’s had into opportunities to grow as a teacher. Now a Chesapeake resident, she grew up as a self-described military brat in Virginia Beach where she still has family. She earned a bachelor’s degree at Old Dominion University in communications and English, and later returned for a second bachelor’s degree in language, education and Spanish. She studied Spanish linguistics at Universidad Veritas in Costa Rica. Now she’s at ODU for a third time working on a master’s degree in leadership administration for grades K-12.
In her 12 years of teaching, Fulson’s work has taken her to unexpected places around the world and into fields she couldn’t have predicted – such as creative writing and science. She’s taught English as a second language (ESL) in Peru and Costa Rica, and English and Spanish on the Tex-Mex border as a AmeriCorp teacher. She received the Sue Lehmann Teaching and Learning Fellowship for the Rio Grande Valley, Texas region in 2015 and the Good to Transformational Teaching Fellowship in McAllen, Texas in 2017.
In addition to those gigs, she’s backpacked throughout Europe and Africa, carving 21 notches on her belt for the countries she’s visited. Somewhere along the line, Fulson fell in love with languages. “Languages are definitely my jam,” she says. She speaks Spanish at a native level and a little Japanese. “I love the origin of words . . . how they came to be. And studying them helps make sense of other languages. I didn’t really master English until I started studying Spanish.”
Along with learning languages, Fulson picked up the nuances of different cultures. She credits this understanding with her ability to connect with students representing a bouquet of cultural and economic backgrounds. More than 120 of Portlock School’s 584 students speak a language other than English. Fulson has seven of those students in her class this year, and 44 have been funneled to her class over the past five years because of her international experience and linguistic skills.
As a Title I school, Portlock receives additional federal funds to boost low-income students. Fulson says one of her biggest challenges is helping students overcome the socio-economic differences inside her classroom. “I know all my parents want the absolute best for their children, and I go to bat for my parents, but sometimes they’re just unable to provide what the kids need because the system is ‘janky’ and just not set up for everybody to succeed. As state Teacher of the Year, I look forward to advocating for these folks who don’t have a platform.”
Fellow second grade teacher Alicia Ford came to Portlock four years ago and credits Fulson, in part, for the decision. While observing her teach a history lesson, Ford was impressed with Fulson’s delivery. “You could just tell that her kids loved to be there, and that she loved teaching. It was like a good movie that you didn’t want to leave,” she says. “When you walk into her classroom, you’re inspired.”
Principal Heather Brusso has known Fulson only since Brusso started her job at Portlock this fall, but she agrees with Ford’s assessment. “She inspires me to go back into the classroom because of her enthusiasm and love for her students. Seeing her interact with her students makes my heart happy. It warms my heart to see her talk to her class and be so animated and engaging and having discussions with them, not just lecturing.”
Fulson says she doesn’t know where her career might go next. “I don’t think the position I will have next has been created yet. I know that I have been groomed to be an administrator, but I will only do what serves my heart and helps the kids. And I want to help teachers realize the beauty and joy they bring to the world.”