Two years ago, Malcolm Thomas was working in finance and retail in College Station in a career that had seen him work and live in Houston, San Antonio, Dallas / Fort Worth, and College Station.

This morning – just like every morning since school started – he walked into a fifth-grade classroom at Ward Elementary School where was greeted by 22 students waiting to hear from their first-year teacher, who teaches both math and social studies.

For the 37-year-old Thomas, the career change might seem like a head-scratcher to some, but for him, it was all part of a plan he’s been working on for quite some time.

“I spent 15 years in business, finance, and retail, and I loved that,” Thomas said. “And if I was still doing that, I would still love it. I’ve always seen myself becoming a teacher at some point. I thought it might be another few years from now, but with what happened during COVID and the teacher shortage across the country, I felt like now was a good time to make the leap because if anyone is suffering in this dynamic, it’s the kids. I figured I could lend a hand and become a teacher like I wanted to at some point anyway.”

That desire to be a teacher doesn’t come because he grew up in a family of educators, but rather because he made a connection with his own teachers, which grew into a commitment he made to himself.

“As I got older and closer to graduating (from high school), a lot of the classes I selected were because of the teacher,” Thomas said. “I wanted to know more about computer science, or business, or accounting, and I had teachers who had a more personal touch. I saw how they could hone in on what I wanted to do – whether it was learning more about the subject or getting some real-world experiences – and I knew as I grew older, I wanted to pass my knowledge on to younger kids.”

Thomas spent the spring semester of the 2021-22 school year as a substitute teacher in AISD, working at as many campuses as he could for the sole purpose of helping decide which campus he would like to work when he became a full-time teacher. He also started and completed his work in an Educator Preparedness Program (EPP) last spring and was ready for a full-time job.

“I had spent time at Ward as a substitute, and it was one of the places where I wanted to work,” Thomas said. “Every school in this district is doing fantastic work with kids, but Ward was in my top three mainly because of the atmosphere, the community, and the administrative team. They’re here because they love what they do, and they want to help kids.”

Ward principal Dawn Ripple said the passion that Thomas displays in the classroom is contagious, adding that his “high energy and growth mindset” will serve him well as he acclimates to his new profession.

“When he served as a substitute teacher on our campus last spring, it was obvious he was conscientious, responsible, and dependable,” Ripple said. “He also took great strides to make connections with our students. When I learned that Mr. Thomas was pursuing his teaching certification through an alternative teaching program; I was very interested in meeting with him to discuss the possibility of joining our team at Ward Elementary. His professional manner, positive energy, and encouraging spirit made him an ideal candidate. We were beyond blessed to recruit him to the Abilene ISD.”

Thomas said he spent last spring working at several different levels of elementary school but found his niche with students getting ready to go to middle school.

“The toughest thing I’ve seen is the jump from elementary to middle school because it’s a big jump in every way,” Thomas said. “I thought if I could get my foot in the door in fourth or fifth grade where I could help those kids, that would be ideal. There happened to be a fifth grade opening at Ward, Mrs. Ripple called and here I am.”

Thomas admits the stress level of getting ready for his first year has been high as he got his room ready, prepared himself for what the first year will be like, and thought through scenarios that could present themselves during the year.

“Look at the responsibility we have as professional educators,” he said. “We will have a major impact on thousands of students every day. Is that a little scary? Yes, because I want to make sure I do this right. But I have a lot of resources, a lot of help, and a lot of great administrators and staff members making sure they guide me on the right path.”

And he hasn’t been afraid to pick the brains of veteran teachers, either.

“I’ve asked everything from something as simple as where they keep their hall pass in their room to something as serious as how you handle a kid if they present a certain scenario,” Thomas said. “The more knowledge I can get, the better.”

And on Aug. 17 when students reported for the first day of school, Thomas was as ready as he could have been.

“The first few weeks have just flown by,” he said. “I feel like I just met my students last week and we’re already at the end of the first grading period. The need to adapt has been constant, and it’s keeping the school days interesting and challenging. As a teacher, it seems like you can only be prepared up to a certain point as students and curriculum will randomly change school day plans, and that’s not a bad thing. Learning is so different now. Although routine is important and will always have a solid place in a classroom, variety and the unexpected help keep the learning environment fresh. It also keeps the students interested in finding out what’s coming up next.

“Now that a few weeks have passed, I’ve been able to start seeing student progression and seeing students comprehend content,” he said. “As it stands right now, I can’t think of anything else that will put a smile on my face more than observing a student applying the knowledge and skills that I teach to new information and watching that student coach themselves through a new problem or concept.”

Ripple said she has seen Thomas interacting with his students in the classroom and has come away impressed with this first-year teacher.

“Our fifth-grade students have welcomed him and are motivated to excel in his class,” she said. “Mr. Thomas is fiercely intelligent and goal-oriented, and I’ve seen how his organization, attention to detail, and history of supervisory roles have been helpful in his transition to this new position. He’s receptive to feedback, desires to be more effective, and embraces mentorship opportunities. The high energy and growth mindset will serve him well as he acclimates to the new profession.”

When it’s all said and done for the 2022-23 school year, Thomas wants his students to know they’ve been under the direction of someone who wants to be more than just a teacher.

“I’m here to share experiences with them, and I want them to know that,” he said. “I’m here for them to ask questions, and if I don’t know the answer, we’re going to find it together. Those are the kind of educational practices I want to bestow to the students to let them know it’s not just about studying Civil War dates, and it’s not just about knowing multiplication tables. It’s about understanding concepts so they can apply them to real-life scenarios, and so we can talk about them in a real-life perspective.”