Westland Middle School, Bethesda
MALAIKA STEWART HAS NEVER eaten lunch by
herself in all her years of teaching at Westland Middle School
in Bethesda. ;e eighth-grade math teacher gives up her lunch
period, opening her classroom to students. About a half dozen
usually come in to work through problems—both algebra and
personal—or to just hang out.
“Sometimes it’s just good to have a break if you need to talk
to somebody,” says student Dionne Chase, who was a regular
in Stewart’s lunch bunch last school year. “During di;cult
situations with friends, she’s convinced me to do the right
Confidence is key to learning in middle school, says
Stewart, 42, who taught in Prince George’s County and the
District for three years before coming to Westland 14 years
ago. Her blackboard is covered with inspirational quotes
from famous people, and she tries to exude excitement when
students get the right answer. “Students know once they come
in my door, there is no negativity,” she says. “If you start to
believe in them, they start to believe in themselves.”
Stewart most enjoys teaching kids who struggle, because of
the satisfaction she gets when they finally understand a concept.
Other teachers who have problems with certain students often
ask Stewart why those students do better in her class. She says
it’s a matter of having high expectations and showing she cares.
“Growing up, I tended to do better with teachers who I
had a relationship with. So for all my students, I try to do
something to get to know them personally so they know that
I’m invested in them,” says Stewart, who sometimes learns
about her students through icebreaker games, such as having
them answer questions written on a beach ball when they
catch it. Stewart shows her personal side in twice-yearly
sta;-student basketball games at Westland. At 6 feet tall,
the former power forward for Spelman College in Atlanta is
usually a top scorer.
During middle school, a time of big transitions for adolescents,
Stewart is a consistent and calm presence, says Westland
Principal Alison Serino. “She is quietly brilliant. Some people are
quite flashy, but she is just this hidden gem,” Serino says.