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‘My heart is in Allentown’: How a school counselor became ASD’s 1st Teacher of the Year

Ali Wight at Dodd Elementary School
Kat Dickey
School counselor Ali Wight stands in front of a bulletin board that says "Welcome" in multiple languages. The flags above the board represent all the citizenships of students at the school.

  • Ali Wight, Dodd Elementary School’s counselor, was named Allentown School District’s first ‘Teacher of the Year’
  • Many teachers were nominated; the district whittled them down to three candidates, which were voted upon by ASD staff
  • Kate Griffin, Dodd’s principal, says Wight goes above and beyond for Dodd’s community

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Ali Wight says she couldn't do her job without her coworkers.

A counselor at Dodd Elementary School, Wight is the Allentown School District's Teacher of the Year.

“I opened my thank you speech at [the PPL Center], I said that there should be hundreds more of you up here with me, right now getting this because I didn't do this alone,” said Wight. “Like, this is such an honor. And I'm so incredibly proud and excited. But I couldn't do it without my staff literally on the frontlines.”

In an effort to bolster morale among district staff, Allentown School District Superintendent Carol Birks and her administration implemented a staff and student appreciation program this school year called “You Are The Light.”

There were several categories for which staff were honored. One of them was Teacher of the Year. All nominations for the contested categories were reviewed by Birks’ staff and narrowed down to three contestants, who were then voted on by all district staff.

Nominated multiple times, Wight won the vote for top teacher.

Kate Griffin, principal at Dodd Elementary, said Wight stands out.

“She goes well above and beyond and even outside of her scope of work that a typical school counselor would do," Griffin said.

"She acts in the role as school counselor, she does a lot of social work, she does a lot of outreach, and connecting with families in the community — connecting community organizations to us as a school, to specific families.”

Griffin told stories of Wight connecting families to utility payment help or to health services, even going to appointments with them to make sure they received care and had an advocate.

When asked about avoiding burnout in such a demanding job, Wight went silent, thinking hard before finally answering.

“I wish I had an answer. Like I wish I could tell you like, Oh, I run 20 miles a week. I don't, I tried. I've never been successful with keeping up with that more than a year,” said Wight.

“I try to have the mindset that I can do all that I can do. And I know I'm doing my very best. It's taken me a long time to get there to accept that sometimes other things are still going to happen that are out of my control, or that somebody else didn't follow up once it got on their plate.

“Or it's not perfect, but I can't own that. So I just keep sticking to my word. … But I've had to accept myself, once it's on that plate. I can support but I'm not responsible for what comes or doesn't come.”

Wight got into counseling after realizing she couldn’t do what she wanted and had studied as an undergrad, being a physical education teacher. What she really wanted, she said, was to connect one-on-one with students and make a difference in their lives.

“And I remember mom asking in Spanish, to someone to translate to say, ‘How do I tell her thank you for not being mad at me?’"
Ali Wight, ASD's Teacher of the Year

“That always stuck with me that if there was a serious, serious issue, I couldn't stop an entire game of soccer with 30 kids to really connect and help this one right in the moment or follow up on it later with the family in the way that I wanted to,” she said.

Asked about a typical day, Wight laughed.

“Every day is different. It is. It's chaotic. It's 911 calls, it's, you know, putting out fires, it's class lessons. It's small groups. It's a variety of things, depending on what needs to happen that day," said Wight.

“And even every morning, when I come in, and I have my list of what's going to happen that day, like three things on my list get done. But 30 other things got added on, and taken care of. Because all day long, it's a lot of prioritizing, prioritizing, and triaging and, you know, stopping what I do right?”

Wight told a story of a student she was very proud of helping — a student who went from speaking no English, having meltdowns in class and in her office, to becoming a leader in the community with a gifted individualized education plan.

She didn’t claim the student’s success for her own, but rather was proud of the resources she had connected the family with to help him succeed. She also notes that he was the oldest child in the family, and after working with the mother, she became an involved member of the community.

“And I remember mom asking in Spanish, to someone to translate to say, ‘How do I tell her thank you for not being mad at me?’" Wight recalled.

"And I was like, ‘Why would I be mad? Like, I want to help you and your son.’ And then the translator had said, ‘She was worried that you were judging her, you were mad, because she'd never come into a school before. And she just knew that he was having these issues.’

"And I was like, ‘Absolutely not. That's not what we're here for. Like, we're here to help.’ And the mom was crying, and she's hugging me and saying, ‘Thank you so much. We just want to help him.’”