Chelsea Willingham has been a fixture in the St. Catherine’s community for nearly 20 years. A student herself from Lower Elementary through Adolescent Community, she has also worked as an Elementary and after-school assistant, not to mention being the proud mother of one and sister of two current students.
But while we all know her as Ms. Chelsea, a new community of Houston high school students has had the opportunity to work with her this year, affectionately renaming her “Ms. Dubs.”
“Ms. Dubs” is the new Algebra II teacher at César Chavez High School in Southeast Houston. Each day, she works with 128 sophomores, juniors and seniors, helping them develop the math skills and enthusiasm for numbers that she traces back to St. Catherine’s.
“I try as much as possible in my classroom to go at their own pace,” Chelsea said. “I try to do as much one-on-one as I can, and less of a one-size-fits-all approach, which of course comes directly from Montessori. So far the students have done really well with that.”
Chelsea says she enjoyed the order and logic of mathematics early, and remembers choosing to work through extra math textbooks as a St. Catherine’s student. This is her first year teaching Algebra II since completing her bachelor’s degree at the University of Houston Downtown. She is completing her teaching certification through HISD’s Effective Teacher Fellowship.
Remembering her own struggles during adolescence—particularly the passing of her father—Chelsea decided that teaching high school would be a meaningful way to support young students navigating what can often be a rocky period.
“I have always felt that adolescence is an often overlooked period in a person's life,” she said. “It is the birth of an adult and a very difficult transition for most people. I was extremely grateful to the people who were there for me during that chaotic and confusing time. I have hoped to pass on that level of guidance to others, which is why I am thrilled to be working alongside adolescents. As much as I can, I want to be an anchor for those who feel overwhelmed. I feel very lucky to be at Chavez, I have met some wonderful people who will soon transition into amazing adults.”
It hasn’t taken Chelsea long to assess her students’ needs and to design her own supplementary math materials. She has already produced manipulatives to help students grasp underlying concepts, instead of simply memorizing steps to solve problems.
“I have a lot of hands-on stuff,” she said. “I don’t have the Montessori materials, of course, but I’m always trying to make stuff and have it be tangible. A lot of my students who haven’t had the tangible early haven’t abstracted math yet.”
In addition to teaching the state math curriculum, Chelsea considers being an advocate and confidante for her students a crucial part of her role. The environment at Chavez, a Title I school, is quite different from St. Catherine’s. Not only is learning approached traditionally, but 80 percent of the students come from economically disadvantaged homes, and 70 percent are in the free or reduced lunch program. Many students are working full- or part-time and have little time left for homework.
“I worry about my students and their lives a lot,” Chelsea said. “I want to see these students I’m investing my life in be successful. You have to learn how to learn on your own.”
Chelsea has observed that many of her students are hungry for guidance and respect from trusted adults. Remembering her own sensitivity as a teenager to the ways students were treated in traditional high school, she works to create a better atmosphere in her own classroom.
“The biggest thing is respect for each child—being able to bring that, the kids have really picked up on that,” she said. “So many people demand respect first, but I give respect to the student first, and it generates a more trusting community. Trust generates happy feelings. They’re not trying to get away with stuff. They know I care about them. All humans thrive in an atmosphere of trust and respect.”
Despite the many difficulties her students face in their home lives, Chelsea has been inspired by how caring and community-oriented they are anyway. Students regularly help, and she fondly recalls a moment during a fire drill when two young men in her class carried a friend in a wheelchair out of the building.
“The students here are amazing,” she said. “There are a few students who are amazingly resilient considering the situations they’re coming from. Their hardships have created a lot of character, so there are many who amaze me. Having a relationship with the students is the best part.”
Chelsea’s first year teaching has made her grateful to have grown up in the St. Catherine’s environment and grateful that her daughter has the same opportunity. It is difficult to see so many kids without the access or time to engage in independent, deeper learning, she says.
“There’s so many things I want for my daughter and for me, but I also want them for all children,” she said. “I’m really thankful for St. Catherine’s. I was there during my formative years, and it’s helped me so many times—I’ve finished my degree, I’m able to follow through on each of my goals—and I think so much of that is being an independent learner and a lifelong learner.”