Ashley Wright reminisces about the days she’d wind her way through dense Atlanta traffic, kickstarting the trek from her home in Suwanee to St. Pius X Catholic High School, a private school in Atlanta where she held her first teaching job. On several of these morning drives, her gaze would catch on the nascent structure of Paul Duke STEM as it rose slowly and confidently from the ground day by day. When it was finally fully constructed, it looked magnificent, and Wright felt its red brick layers and wide window panels beckoning her. 

Wright grew eager to learn about the opportunities within its walls and was encouraged to see a few available jobs for Animation and Graphic Design, two of Wright’s passions. I emailed the principal and three assistant principals requesting an interview, says Wright. The interview was granted. And the rest is history.

However, making the transition from private to public school wasn’t easy. It took some time for Wright to adjust to the new environment and the school’s unique approach to teaching, but she credits the opportunities and resources afforded to her by the school as instrumental in helping her think outside the box about teaching. The school’s advocacy of project-based learning (PBL), which encourages learning through hands-on activities, was a new concept for Wright, but she instantly grew intrigued by it. 

Wright recalls receiving a Roland Large Format Printer, Xante UV Printer and a Brother Embroidery machine technology she’d never seen before, let alone used. By her second year, she decided to try an innovative approach, asking her students to work alongside her to discover how to use the machines. In no time, they began mastering each machine one by one, creating instruction sheets along the way and later teaching other staff how to use them too. 

Then COVID hit, halting in-person instruction. However, encouraged by the momentum established, the students pleaded with Wright to consider Zoom calls so they could collectively design a brand for an on-facility print shop. Together the group developed a mission and vision, came up with branding and worked on designs. 

Soon, they were popping in at school on Saturdays, masks securely in place, and printing wall vinyl for behind the cashier, floor stickers for social distancing, and even window cling for the storefront. That’s when Wright came up with the idea to sell products from different designers or students to give them a feel for running a small business. Each student was tasked with coming up with a brand line of three products, considering quality, functionality, and packaging, as well as cost and profit. 

The grand shop opening alone raked in $3,000 in profits. My students blew me out of the water with their creativity, says Wright. 

But the momentum didn’t stop there. The students, widely encouraged by this initial success, had another idea. They hosted an artisan market, selling products in bulk in their own booths and offering out business cards. This venture was yet another success. 

“This experience taught me everything about education,” says Wright. “Teaching is a creative team effort. I don’t need to be the teacher on the stage telling them what to do. I need to give them a problem and work with them to see what they can do. To challenge them and encourage them to work through struggles. “

Today, Wright’s print shop is still in operation, and she continues to teach a 3-year Graphic Design Pathway at Paul Duke STEM, which includes Introduction to Graphic Design, Graphic Design and Production and Advanced Graphic Design.

For her evident passion and devotion to her students and innovative contribution to their ambition and success, Wright was nominated as Teacher of the Year 2023, first at the local school and later at the county level. When she found out she’d won the final designation, she was floored. The moment my name was announced as Teacher of the Year I felt seen, like all my hard work to get to this point had been acknowledged. As a teacher, that acknowledgment is one of the greatest gifts.

For her success and accomplishments, Wright cheers her family.

“My family has always believed in me, lifted me up and showed me true kindness,” says Wright. “I am who I am today because of them, and I am so thankful for the close bond we share.”

Wright says building meaningful relationships with each student is paramount for her. The most rewarding part of her career, she says, is nothing if not the students themselves. Every time I get a letter, gift, hug or even a smile I know I am making a difference, she says. I want to impact my students lives. I want them to know I believe in them and help them gain the confidence to go after their dreams. I do this job for them, and my biggest hope is that they will all learn to be kind and, most importantly, love themselves.

“I want to impact my students’ lives. I want them to know I believe in them and help them gain the confidence to go after their dreams.”