Shelton alumna and teacher crafts class to teach students valuable skills
When students walk into Courtney Dios’ class at the Shelton School, they aren’t just sitting down in front of any teacher – they’re getting time with an alumna who understands exactly how they feel.
The Highland Park native said she struggled in school.
“I was convinced that I was stupid and was never going to be successful in life,” she said. “I would make perfect scores on all my homework and classwork, but when it came to tests, that was a whole different story.”
By high school, she voiced her worries to her parents, which eventually led to testing for learning differences. It was a turning point that led her to spend high school at Shelton.
“Through those four years at Shelton, they taught me all the skills I needed to be successful not only in life but also in school to show that I was not stupid, I just learn differently,” she said.
More confident, she graduated Auburn University with a graphic design degree. She started a business. She coached volleyball. But ultimately she said her“calling” was being a teacher.
“I knew in my heart, the only place I really wanted to go teach was at Shelton because I knew what it was like to stand in their shoes and I wanted to give back to a school that changed my life forever,” she said. “My goal every day is to make sure none of my students have to ever experience feeling the way I did my eighth grade year.”
Four years later, she is ensconced at the school that made learning a pleasure for her, and is one year in to teaching a new class – a “life hacks” class that teaches things like sewing, cooking, gardening, and even basic survival skills.
“What if you were in a situation that you didn’t have that access and had to have some basic knowledge of how to do a task that we are more than likely will be faced with at some point in our life?” she said.
The course that was created is similar to old-school home economics classes, but Dios knew that to appeal to the middle school set, she’d need to make it sound appealing. After workshopping several names, Life Hacks won.
“My goal is to teach them how to work smarter, not harder and give them the knowledge where if they were put in a situation, they would be more confident,” she said.
The class quickly became one of the more popular electives. Dios was surprised by just how quickly students took to aspects of the class, too.
“The best part about it all, is most of the students that have loved the class the most are the boys, especially the sewing unit,” she said. “When I told my husband that the boys would come to class more excited to get on the sewing machines, he explained to me that it is probably because it is mechanical and pushing the pedal to make it go was empowering.”
PN: So what made you decide to go into teaching?
Dios: I grew up in Highland Park where I attended elementary and middle school and played soccer competitively. School was one thing that I always had to work a little harder at but playing soccer kept me motivated because if I didn’t make the grades, I couldn’t play soccer.
Middle school gave me challenges that at the end of 8th grade I was convinced that I was stupid and was never going be successful in life. I would make perfect scores on all my homework and classwork but when it came to tests, that was a whole different story. Teachers would accuse me of cheating on my homework because my test scores didn’t prove that I really knew the material. I was defeated and remember coming home one day after school once I built up the confidence to tell my parents there was no way I was going to HPHS because I would never be successful. I told them that if they dropped me off there on the first day, I would meet them back at home however long it would have taken me to walk there.
Not realizing at the time, this was my cry for help telling them I needed something different and they never questioned my seriousness one second. So, in response, my mom wanted me to test to get into Hockaday since that was where she went. On test day, after hours and hours of sitting through the entrance exam, I was mentally exhausted and just started bubbling in random answers on the Scantron just to get it over with.
A few weeks later, my parents got a phone call with the results and they asked if I had ever been tested for learning differences. This moment was the turning point that changed my life forever. I was then tested for a Learning Differences and the results showed that I had weaknesses in sequencing and processing. The school search began with recommendations and for my high school years, I attended Shelton.
Through those four years at Shelton, they taught me all the skills I needed to be successful not only in life but also in school to show that I was not stupid, I just learn differently. It wasn’t only the skills that they equipped me with, they gave me my confidence back. I graduated third in my class and went on to attend Auburn University and graduated from there with a bachelor’s degree in graphic design and minor in business. I went on to form my own graphic design business, did real estate and coached club and middle school volleyball.
I knew from my different career experiences, my calling was being around and teaching kids. I made the decision from there to get my teaching certificate. I knew in my heart, the only place I really wanted to go teach was at Shelton because I knew what it was like to stand in their shoes and I wanted to give back to a school that changed my life forever.
My goal every day is to make sure none of my students have to ever experience feeling the way I did my eighth grade year. So, I contacted the head of the school and told her that I would love to come back and teach if they had an opening and without hesitation, the rest is history. I subbed for a year before teaching full-time and this is my fourth year teaching. Every day I am blown away at how amazing and incredible these kids are and love watching them grow as individuals as they gain confidence and skills that unlock their potential.
In the beginning, I always thought that having a learning difference would give me a disadvantage in life but learned quickly that it actually gave me an advantage because I saw and learned things from a different perspective. I would never change a thing about my journey because it has shaped who I am and gives me my purpose of what I do to this day. There are two quotes from Albert Einstein that sums it up: “Creativity is seeing what others see and thinking what no one else has ever thought” and “the true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”
PN: What made you decide to start a Life Hacks class?
Dios: I have always told my students that if you leave my class not taking one thing with you that you can use throughout your life, I have not done my job. So, a few years ago when I chaperoned our eighth grade class trip to San Antonio, I just randomly throughout the idea to my group. A few of the girls immediately stopped and with their eyes lit up with excitement and said, “YES, PLEASE!!!” After that, it was a constant conversation about all the amazing things we could do in that class and how it would be so important to learn those skills.
PN: Why is learning these skills important?
Dios: With technology being a driving source of our society, I felt like so many kids these days lack skills that might come in handy at some point in our life. In reality, we have access to whatever we need to know or how to do something at our finger tips if you have access to a computer or phone. You just ask Siri or Google and just like that you have millions of pages that come up with the answer. Convenient, yes! But what if you were in a situation that you didn’t have that access and had to have some basic knowledge of how to do a task that we are more than likely will be faced with at some point in our life. Not to mention, this type of class could uncover an unknown love in a student that could change the path of their life forever. If we are not exposed to different things in life, we might not ever uncover our purpose.
One student I had last quarter was going through a really hard time dealing with a family illness and was struggling pretty bad emotionally. At this point, I did not know this information until after his advisor stopped me in the hallway and told me that my class has completely changed his perspective on life. I was blown away as she told me his story and that our sewing unit has given him an outlet because he found something he really loved to do as he put his focus there and his outlook on his situation turned more positive because he could now find success in something he found therapeutic. The sewing unit just happened to hit at the right time as one of his favorite childhood stuffed animals got torn open by his dog, he was able to repair it because he learned the skill to sew. A few days later, his father stopped me in carpool line and told me that my class has changed his life and he would forever be grateful. The only thing he was asking this year for Christmas was a sewing machine. My heart melted and a reminder of why I do what I do every day.
PN: You call this class a life hacks class instead of a home economics class – why is that?
Dios: I remember last February when I was doing my teacher evaluation with my division head about my performance and plans for this school year I proposed my idea about developing a new elective for our middle school to incorporate a class like Home Ec. She loved my presentation and all the ideas I had but one thing I mentioned was that I wasn’t sure that middle school kids would choose my class if it was called Home Economics.
When students are choosing their electives, it is all about making it appealing. This comes pretty natural to me as my degree is graphic design, which is all about how to capture the appeal of others through visual orientation and words, so I was on a mission.
I put myself in the shoes of a middle school student and spent hours brainstorming trying to come up with a name that would catch the attention to them where they would not only want to take my class, but also be excited about it as well. Some of the names I threw around were fun and creative but just didn’t do it for me. The name Life Hacks seemed so simple but at the same time seemed to fit the mold.
My goal is to teach them how to work smarter, not harder and give them the knowledge where if they were put in a situation, they would be more confident in knowing how to approach and do the task without feeling completely lost. I knew the name would catch the attention of the student and the description would catch the attention of the parents as it would bring back memories from their middle school days from what they took away from their Home Ec class. So, Life Hacks was born.
PN: What has the response been like?
Dios: The response has been overwhelming! Every year it has been my goal to create a new elective that would teach students skills that they could carry with them in life that would set them up for success. In the past, it has usually taken about a year for the class to take off once others have taken it and the word spreads throughout the student body. With this class, it was immediate.
I was getting emails left and right from parents so thankful for creating this class as it is so needed for these younger generations. These students work so hard everyday in all their classes, I wanted to give them a class they could come to and learn skills they knew they would need to know in life outside of school.
They love getting hands on and using their creativity in making things they never thought they could ever do. The best part about it all, is most of the students that have loved the class the most are the boys, especially the sewing unit. When I told my husband that the boys would come to class more excited to get on the sewing machines, he explained to me that it is probably because it is mechanical and pushing the pedal to make it go was empowering.
This part alone is probably one of my most favorite things about this class because I never thought the boys would have been so excited to sew.