SALEM, Va. (WDBJ7) -- A local teacher who has influenced students in detention centers, jails, college classrooms garnered the honor of Salem's top teacher for the work she does at the middle school level.
Andrew Lewis Middle School's Sonnya Preston has been named Salem City Schools' 2018 Teacher of the Year. Preston works as a Business and Information Technology teacher at the school.
"I cried like a baby when I got this news," Preston said. "I have constantly had to battle the generational poverty mindset in my life and to now be able to combat that with that with this amazing honor is huge for me, my family and my students."
Preston grew up in Roanoke and attended Virginia Heights Elementary and Woodrow Wilson Middle before graduating from Patrick Henry High School, Salem City school officials say.
She earned both her Bachelor's and Master's degrees from Virginia State University and she has completed all of the coursework needed to secure her Doctorate of Instructional Technology degree with a minor in Educational Leadership. Before coming to Salem in 2005, she taught in Roanoke City and Greenville, SC and was an adjunct faculty member at National Business College.
"Education saved my life," Preston said. "I spent my middle school years on Harrison Avenue and around that time, drugs were starting to make their way into our community. Right before my very own eyes, I watched our family-oriented neighborhood transform into a jungle. I watched some of my friends go to jail and some of them even died, and the only way that I knew to escape this was through education."
Preston told city officials that the theme for her life has been "in the nick of time." She said whenever she was ready to give up, take a shortcut or make a wrong turn, an educator was always in the right place at the right time to keep her on the correct path.
"Now, it's my turn to be a beacon of hope to kids who feel lost," she said. "Overall, the students respect me because I am very real with them. I try to bring experiences to the classroom that are applicable in the real world, and for some reason, my realness has turned into them considering me the 'cool' teacher."
Preston's career took her outside of the middle school classroom and into a detention center, an in-school suspension program and at an at-risk school in South Carolina.
"At the detention center we had a zero-tolerance policy and I picked up strategies there concerning discipline policy and I pickled strategies there concerning discipline that is applicable everywhere," Preston said. "In South Carolina, I taught in a building that was surrounded Jesse Jackson Townhomes (a low-income Housing Authority neighborhood). School let out at 2:30 p.m. and I was still in the classroom with them at 5 p.m. because the school was their safe haven. Those kids just wanted someone to love them."
City officials say Preston is skilled in both Windows and Apple-based systems, as well as coding. Her students in grades sixth through eighth have opportunities to master everything from video production to the suite of Adobe design programs. This year, officials say her students are learning what it takes to own and operate their own businesses.
"We are incredibly fortunate to have Sonnya as part of our family at Andrew Lewis Middle," said Principal Jamie Garst. "Her love and passion for teaching children are evident on a daily basis. Whether collaborating with a teacher or working one-on-one with a student, Sonnya has a tremendous amount of grit and determination to help kids succeed."
"Sonnya has the unique ability to reach even the most difficult children," said Hunter Routt, Andrew Lewis' Assistant Principal. "Her unique background and knowledge of children serve her well. She is a master of creating a loving and nurturing environment, while still holding her kids accountable and helping them become more responsible citizens."
The Salem City School Board will honor Preston and five more teachers of the year during a special reception on March 27.