Sonia Lawson brings years of education and administrative knowledge and experience to her new role as principal at Sarracino Middle School. Lawson was hired as principal in June 2020 and is excited to have her students back in the building for in-person learning. Besides being a principal, Lawson has focused part of her career on improving education for students with disabilities. She has advocated for them in Washington D.C. and started the first inclusive classroom in Belen. When Lawson is not at Sarracino, she is a jazzercise instructor and a foodie. She also loves to travel.
What made you want to go into education?
My mother was a teacher and an administrator and my grandmother had been a teacher. I was bound to determine not to and then I think it was an innate skill set that I had and I also spoke Spanish so I became a bilingual teacher in Houston. It just came pretty naturally to me so it was pretty fun. It was a skill set that I didn’t realize that I had until I was in particular situations and my mom was like, ‘you speak Spanish, why don’t you see what you think about teaching.’ They were looking for bilingual teachers and I went to the interview to see if you should progress further in the process. The guy put down his interview stuff (and) he goes, ‘you never took education classes,’ and I said, ‘no.’ He said, ‘you have the highest score on this that I’ve had in several years.’ It was a teacher perceiver type of interview to see if you have what it takes to go into education. I just credit that to my mom and grandmother and just being around that type of environment and how you think and react to kids and to educational circumstances. That became my path.
What was it like being a bilingual teacher?
It was exhausting mentally because I was teaching in a second language and instructing and having conversations with kids all day long in Spanish and having to talk to parents. It was a skillset I had since I was a little kid. I never had formal Spanish until I got into college, but my grandparents spoke to me and I had learned to read it at a very young age so my mom put me in a bilingual classroom so I could learn to read Spanish. I guess I was imprinted for the Spanish language. I had a blast. It was good for me. It was good for me to interact with a different set of parents that you wouldn’t ordinarily get to be involved with because of my bilingualism. I really benefited from it. It gave me a really good experience.
How did you get into administration?
My first job as a teacher in Houston, I was at Franklin Elementary, and my principal at the time, she came to me and was like, ‘I’m going to groom you for some leadership positions,’ and I was like, ‘can I just get my certification first,’ because I was in a classroom and taking classes to become a teacher that whole kind of thing — part of what was on an emergency permit or what we would call a waiver here. That year, I was a third grade teacher. The following year, she moved me to fourth grade and made me the leader of that grade level group and then placed me in this cohort to become a lead teacher for the district. Houston ISD is about the size of 16 APS’.
I became a lead teacher for English Language Arts in Houston. It gave me some amazing professional development and the mentors I had around me kept pushing me and said, ‘you have a really innate ability to read kids, to work with your colleagues.’ They put me on that track. My grandparents were getting up in age and they lived in Belen. My siblings and I talked about it with my parents and my parents weren’t ready yet to retire to move back here. I was able to. I came over here and I applied in Belen and got a position at La Merced Elementary so I stayed in Belen for 10 years and got my administrator degree.
I taught for two more years and then became an assistant principal at the middle school and then a principal. I moved on to Los Lunas and became a principal there, a Special Education Director and then on to Bernalillo. I just kept moving up. I benefited from the people around me in each of the districts or experiences that I had. I got to work with some great educators and they put me on some state committees. I’ve been an expert witness for the legislative sessions.
I’ve gone to Washington D.C. to advocate for kids with disabilities and for the State of New Mexico with our Senators and House of Representatives that were in Washington D.C. I’ve had a lot of fun, but it’s been really beneficial to get to know the school communities and the clientele that we represent. We think we might just be working in a small school or in an area, but we can really have far reaching impact with the decisions that we make. I was put into positions that stretched me a little bit, but each time I learned and grew.
What was it like advocating for students with disabilities?
A lot of my career has been around students with disabilities. I was never a special education teacher, however, I began the first inclusion classroom in Belen. As a matter of fact, Staci March and I were co-teachers together. She was the special education component and I was the general education component.
I was getting my master’s degree at the time. I started using my master’s program — I was collecting data on the impact of including students with disabilities more often and more frequently and side-by-side with students without disabilities so that they learn from one another and it’s not so separate. I collected a lot of data with what I was doing at that school in Belen and I had also offered, before I became an administrator, to have students with disabilities in my class to be included. Just the impact that I saw with these kids and they would grow and began having more peer group friends vs. just having the kids who were in their small two to four kid classrooms. As it moved on, I was a principal in Los Lunas, I began using more inclusive practices and I had co-teaching classrooms similar to what Staci and I had been doing at Dennis Chavez. As a principal, I would have our kids included all the time… Going to Washington D.C. to advocate for students with disabilities… kids and adults, we are all in society together. We are a reflection of everything. Kids are more tolerant of each other and adults are more fearful of something they don’t know so it’s interesting because we can learn together and still hone in on the things kids need help with, but there is also adult education that has to happen at the same time… Advocating for students with disabilities, it’s just an awareness of, ‘do we know what we are doing to kids accidentally or is at an implicit bias that we might have.’ There are a lot of inequities that happen in education, not through anyone’s particular fault, but by how the system had been set up from the very beginning so how do we figure out how to level the playing field and still give kids the opportunities they need without unintentionally shutting those doors of opportunity… We advocated for changes in laws and changes in funding so that there is more of a level playing field.
What prompted you to become a principal?
Opportunities. I’ve come back to being a principal now because I missed kids. The path that was set from the people above me, they recognized that leadership ability in me and encouraged me on that path. After teaching, I was an assistant principal and then became a principal and then director and then assistant superintendent. For me, my parents live in Belen and I’m very blessed to have them and during this COVID-19 life, I just thought, ‘I can’t get this time back with my parents.’
I had a couple of conversations with Mr. Hendrix and Ms. Cannon and they were like, ‘we would love to have you. If you can make your way to coming here, we know you can make an impact.’ I left my job as an assistant superintendent in Roswell and I get to live in my house in Belen, which is right by my parents. I’m getting to know this school community and I have an amazing team here. I just am absolutely blessed to have the team that we have and the teachers that we have. It’s a comfortable work environment for, I think, all of us, but for me, I am having fun. I really enjoy having conversations with parents and getting to know them. I’ve been a principal for a while, previously, so coming back to it gives me the opportunity to recalibrate why I do what I do. Being in upper district office positions sometimes, your decision making you don’t see it with kids like you do as a principal. Right now, I’m seeing all the planning that went into everything that we are doing to even have kids in the building. I love being around the kids.
What have been some of your best memories from working in education?
1995 was when I got into teaching so this is my 25th year. I started off at an inner-city school in Houston and it was rough. Moving from a huge, huge, district giving me the scope of how decisions are made in such a huge system and then moving from that to Belen, which is such a small system, and recognizing that education is education in each of the systems of how the adults operate make or break how your work environment is or how the kids can benefit… I’m a Jazzercise instructor also so I used to always do exercise classes with the kids.
I would use Team Dance and we would do different circuit training things. I coach basketball. Having those interactions with kids on a different level besides just the day-to-day and just watching them grow and watching the kids mature and get to some of their epiphanies from, ‘I don’t have to behave like a goofball, it’s about how I’m going to grow.’ When I see that lightbulb go off in a kid… that’s fun. Playing powder puff. Just doing silly things. Playing basketball with kids. Doing different activities. We used to do skits as teachers…
Opening schools — being the first principal in a brand new building was kind of cool. One of the coolest memories I can recall is we were opening Central Elementary and I was the first principal to be in that building after everything, after all the construction had been completed. There were a couple other people that were along for that ride as they were building it.
My mom had attended that school. My grandmother was a teacher at that school and then I became principal at that school. That was really a cool thing… I’m enjoying this right now, just getting to have kids back in the building is fun for me. I love being goofy with the kids. I’m not going to put up with any stuff either, we are going to hold it together. I want to change how the community acts with Sarracino, but that’s on all of us to reach out as well.
What other interests do you have?
I’m a jazzercise instructor… I like, well now that we’ve been in COVID-19, I’m a foodie. I love going to different places, restaurants and trying different things. I ski. I love to fish. Non-COVID-19 life, I like to travel a lot. I like to go places and see different things. My son lives in St. Louis and he’s an actor so I would always travel to watch him in his shows.
Born and raised in New Mexico?
I was born in Albuquerque. I was raised until sixth grade in Belen and then my dad got transferred — he was with the government. He was a federal agent. I grew up the rest of my time in Houston and went to the University of Texas at Arlington for my bachelor’s degree. I did all kinds of things before I got into education. I managed nightclubs and stuff like that. I moved back from Texas in 1998. I have pretty much been in New Mexico since then. I went back to Texas for two years to Fort Worth because I wanted to be at the high school level administration. I’ve now done every level of administration from pre-K through high school so not much surprises me.
What was it like coming back to New Mexico in 1998?
I had been away, I went to high school and college in Texas, and I spent three years teaching in Houston and then came here in 1998 and continued teaching. I think it was going from a big city, Houston, and having everything around you and the availability and I had the beach and all of that stuff around me to come to the desert oasis of the southwest. I came to appreciate how much I missed the mountains and the scenery and that kind of thing. It’s been nice to be back… This is just a little bit more, I’m not going to say slower-paced because I’m still doing the same things I was doing, but I’m not having to deal with the crazy traffic like I was in Fort Worth. It shouldn’t take an ordinary human being two hours to worry about getting to and from work. Out of your day, that’s just a lot of stress. That I appreciate not having to deal with. It was a good change. I think everything happens for a reason and my path has been my path for a reason. I think I’m here at Sarracino for a reason.
If there was one thing you could change about Socorro, what would it be and why?
I don’t know that I would change anything about Socorro. I think things happen the way they are supposed to happen. There is an evolution in every community over time. I don’t think it’s about me changing, I think it’s about me learning the community and figuring out how I can add to it and give them a benefit from my presence and complementing what already exists and growing this school community into something they can be more proud of. This community, it’s a very proud community of it’s traditions and the people who have been farmers and ranchers and the business owners here. I think it’s on everybody to realize that we all contribute something and to recognize the value that each individual has.