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Emphasis on understanding: teacher seeks to empower students

Rockstar Teacher: Nicole Shilton

Grand Rapids — From basic circuitry to the fractals of the Mandelbrot set, math teacher Nicole Shilton is out to make sure her students understand it all.

Well, most of it. With the Mandelbrot set, it’s more about exposing students to the possibilities the mathematical model presents, but if her students want to grasp it, she’ll certainly explain.

Shilton is a 28-year Grand Rapids Public Schools teacher, now in her ninth year at C.A. Frost Middle High. She teaches Algebra II, financial literacy and a college math readiness course coordinated by GRPS and Grand Rapids Community College.

‘My goal is to not just get through the content but help them build confidence in themselves.’

— C.A. Frost Middle High teacher Nicole Shilton

In the Classroom

She’s known for her commitment to students, and for bringing compassion and the wisdom of experience to the classroom. That’s partly why she received the Jean Hamilton Cope Teacher of the Year award in mid-October.

“She feels like a mom,” senior Ziigwaan Chavez said. “She’s caring.”

Ziigwaan said Shilton has a kind and welcoming demeanor that some can feel is lacking in math classes.

Junior Dashiyah Waters, left, talks through a problem with math teacher Nicole Shilton at C.A. Frost Middle High

“I like that I feel not judged by her. Before, I’d be scared to ask questions of math teachers but with her, she was really easy to talk to.” 

Shilton prioritizes true understanding over getting through as much material as possible. While she still has to hit certain benchmarks, she tries to make sure everyone’s on board before she moves from one lesson to the next.

“There’s a certain amount of curriculum we’re expected to get through, but there’s no benefit to the student if they blow through it and they don’t understand anything,” she said. “I’d rather they be confident and solid in what we learn.”

Ziigwaan said Shilton’s approach to teaching creates an atmosphere where no one feels excluded.

“She makes sure everyone knows what they’re doing.”

Junior Syncere Washington concurred.

“We don’t rush through the process,” Syncere said. “Everybody understands what’s going on and what’s happening or how to do it. That’s when we finish it. If not, we’ll just keep taking our time.”

‘Develop That Growth Mindset’

Shilton prides herself on her ability to relate to students, getting to know them individually to assess their needs and learning styles, in order to, as she said, “develop that growth mindset.” 

‘I like that I feel not judged by her. Before, I’d be scared to ask questions of math teachers, but with her, she was really easy to talk to.’

— student Ziigwaan Chavez

Senior Jayla Davis was in Shilton’s class last year, and she enjoyed the experience so much that she nominated Shilton for the Jean Hamilton Cope award.

“I like that Mrs. Shilton connects with her students,” Jayla said. “When we have conversations, it doesn’t always feel like I’m talking to a teacher.”

Jayla, who considers herself a kinesthetic learner, liked that Shilton would sometimes break from traditional lectures, using games and models to convey tricky concepts.

Room for Fun

She also allows for some wiggle room in class. Side conversations pop up here and there, but when she puts a question to the room, the hands shoot up and students snap to attention.

What’s her secret for keeping everyone on track?

Nicole Shilton speaks in her classroom at C.A. Frost Middle High

“It’s just knowing the students,” Shilton said, adding later, “My goal is to not just get through the content but help them build confidence in themselves.”

Her work is paying off.

“My failure rates are really low, because I’m not going to let a kid just sit there and not do it. I’m going to keep asking how I can help,” she said. “Success looks different for different students. They don’t all have A’s. … But I can certainly help students be successful.”

Shilton also serves as the senior class adviser. She’s also a mentor for new teachers like Zac Ford.

“She is a fantastic mentor because she doesn’t take herself too seriously, but she takes her craft very seriously. She has taught me to see the best in students — even when it is difficult,” Ford said, adding that he considers Shilton not just a mentor, but also a friend. 

As a recipient of the Jean Hamilton Cope Teacher of the Year award, Shilton will be nominated by GRPS for the Michigan Teacher of the Year program.

Read more from Grand Rapids: 
Crazy for composting: Students pick up new skills at Shawmut Hills
Learning about leadership: Lions reps visit C.A. Frost

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Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley is a reporter covering Cedar Springs, Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids and Sparta school districts. An award-winning journalist, Riley spent eight years with the Ludington Daily News, reporting, copy editing, paginating and acting as editor for its weekly entertainment section. He also contributed to LDN’s sister publications, Oceana’s Herald-Journal and the White Lake Beacon. His reporting on issues in education and government has earned accolades from the Michigan Press Association and Michigan Associated Press Media Editors. Riley’s early work in journalism included a stint as an on-air news reporter for WMOM Radio, and work on the editorial staff of various student publications. Riley is a graduate of Grand Valley State University. He originally hails from western Washington.


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