Age 36 | Stuart-Hobson Middle School
8th grade English/language arts teacher and department chair
Dowan McNair-Lee’s life has been an exercise in struggling against the odds, and reaching safety through education. So she doesn’t hesitate to press her students when they start slacking.
As they moan about the latest assignment, she is likely to tell them, “This is about your future!” or, “What are you gonna do when you get to high school?”
The daughter of a Navy Yard clerk and a secretary, she grew up in the District of Columbia, her childhood a mix of loving security and instability.
Neither of her parents attended college, but they were both big readers; books were always scattered around the house. She remembers being dispatched, at ages 5 and 6, to look up words in the big Webster’s dictionary for her dad as he did the Sunday crossword puzzle. Her parents nurtured her dreams of the future, buying her a nurse’s uniform when she saw herself tending to the sick and a blackboard when she imagined herself a teacher.
Even with money in short supply, her parents kept her in “strict but loving” Christian schools, where she became known as the “smart little skinny girl with the big hair and the big vocabulary,” Ms. McNair-Lee recalls.
By early adolescence, though, life got more unpredictable as her parents repeatedly separated and reunited, and money dwindled. She and her mother moved frequently, sometimes staying on friends’ couches. They ended up in nearby Lanham, Md.
An injury had forced her mother to stop working, so there was no money for private school. Ms. McNair-Lee got her first taste of a public high school, sticking out from the neighborhood crowd in her preppy clothes. She went her own way, clinging to her cousin for security and befriending the Advanced Placement students.
She credits her teachers, a guidance counselor, and her cousin for keeping her focused on college. Aching to get away from the tumult of home, she applied and was accepted to Hampton University, a historically black college in Virginia.
Grants and scholarships diminished by her second year, and she began tutoring and writing her friends’ English papers to tide herself over. They urged her to teach, but she sought a career in medicine, saying she “didn’t want to be a broke teacher.”
Halfway through her sophomore year, her parents divorced, and she was too broke and too upset to stay in college. She came home to Washington and worked temp-agency jobs for two years, then pulled herself together to enroll in the University of the District of Columbia. In an education class there, she found herself weeping, and realized she had found her place.
“I had always tutored,” she says, “and I was always at my best when I was showing someone how to do something.”
During her UDC years, she had the chance, through a federally funded minority fellowship, to do graduate-level research on school funding disparities and their effect on college-completion rates.
That work took her around the country as she presented her findings. In 2002, she walked across the UDC stage with a bachelor’s degree, summa cum laude.
The next fall, she took her first teaching job, in the city’s northeast quadrant, at Watkins Elementary, a feeder school for Stuart-Hobson Middle School. She taught 3rd grade there for two years, then switched to Stuart-Hobson, where she taught 6th grade reading for four years.
By then, she had a 2-year-old son, and her mother cared for him while Ms. McNair-Lee taught and worked on a master’s degree in reading at Trinity Washington University, completing it in 18 months.
She tried her hand in a charter school, teaching 6th grade writing for a year, but it wasn’t a good fit, she says; the hours were too long for the mother of a kindergarten son with learning challenges. So she returned to Watkins and Stuart-Hobson as the coordinator of gifted and talented programs for two years. She also began teaching urban literacy to graduate students at Trinity in the summers.
She moved to the 7th grade in fall 2011, while she participated in the District of Columbia’s 18-monthfellowship, which aims to involve teachers in district and federal education policymaking. In an unusual move, Stuart-Hobson allowed her to “loop” with those students when they moved to 8th grade this school year. She has been focusing on teaching the common-core standards and preparing her students for high school.
Many of those students face life challenges similar to the ones Ms. McNair-Lee endured growing up. She understands how that can complicate learning. But she sees school as their salvation.
“I believe in the power of education,” she says. “It gave me so many opportunities. It was my way out.”
Coverage of the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the common assessments is supported in part by a grant from the GE Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 2013 edition of Education Week as Dowan McNair-Lee