Fortis Academy teacher and October Employee of the Month helps students reclaim victory in chess, life

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October 8, 2021 by HCDE-Texas

Not everyone has the fortune of knowing what they want to dedicate their life to at a young age. However, Fortis Academy social studies teacher and October Employee of the Month James Hilton says his passion for counseling adolescents began long before his arrival to HCDE.  

Hilton, who graduated from Southwestern Assemblies of God University, pastors a church of the First Assembly of God in Shepherd, Texas, and draws on both his professional and spiritual vocations to aid Fortis students in their journey to sobriety.  

“It’s just a call, you know. Some people have a call in different areas, and mine is dealing with youth,” said Hilton. “My first degree is in church and youth ministries, and I’ve been working with youth since I was 16 years old in one form or fashion.”  

Fortis Principal Travita Godfrey says Hilton’s greatest strength is building relationships with students that repair harm and foster learning.  

“Mr. Hilton does not easily get frustrated, he has a lot of patience, and he doesn’t take anything personally. For him, it’s whatever [he] can do to build a relationship with these kids,” she said. “[He] is really fun and full of surprises. He finds ways to sneak in historical lessons all day long. With the kids, I notice he engages them in the conversation, and they like it. I’ve been very excited and impressed by that.”  

In one of his many efforts to energize his students, Hilton brought a chessboard to lunch. The students only showed mild interest until one student challenged him to a game. As mentor and mentee dueled, two other students slowly gravitated toward them and soon became hooked. Their next goal is to win a game against Hilton. 

“Kids really enjoy beating their teachers in chess,” he said with visible mirth. 

Chess is now a daily routine during lunch, and Hilton regularly observes, coaches, and plays the games that ensue. The school hopes that students will compete in the annual chess tournament hosted by Academic and Behavior School West in January.   

Fortis Academy student Jasmine, center, makes a move against her opponent in chess as social studies teacher James Hilton, right, coaches, October 4, 2021

Hilton, a 15-year educator and history buff, still finds ways to incorporate lessons into the fun. When he brings out his chessboard from Israel, he talks about his travels and the importance of experiencing different cultures. When the students play with his Battle-of-the-Alamo-themed chess set, he discusses the significance of the event and the motives of the opposing forces.  

“I love Texas history,” said Hilton. “I’ve gone to the Alamo for teacher training since about 2004. They don’t know my name, but they know my face when I walk in.” 

He first began his career in education in 2004 at Channelview Independent School District, teaching eighth-grade social studies. After six years, he landed a position at the Al Price State Juvenile Correctional Facility High School in Beaumont, Texas, where he worked with adjudicated youth.   

There, he learned skills that “taught [him] how to teach kids without looking at the problem that got them to that situation.” Having grown up with parents who included their children in their work as pastors, he spoke to the merit of his experiences in ministry as well. 

“The training I’ve had through the years has helped me to be understanding of people,” he said. “You have to be there for them when they don’t do what you think they should do and have to live with consequences. You have to love the person [despite] the choices they make in order to have an opportunity to help them further. I think that directly relates to what we do here at Fortis Academy.”  

Fortis Academy social studies teacher and HCDE employee of the month James Hilton poses for a photograph, October 4, 2021

The 15-year educator has plans to become a licensed chemical dependency counselor to allow him to be more involved in the counseling at Fortis. He believes that having staff who understand more about the “treatment side” of Fortis would be beneficial for everyone involved with the campus. Barring a few final courses and a 300 hour practicum, Hilton hopes to obtain his license by the end of summer 2022.  

“I feel like since I’ve had the training, moving forward in that area would help the school and help me help kids better,” he said. 

Hilton hopes his students will retain the knowledge he imparts in the classroom and chess. However, there is one lesson the game offers which he hopes students remember above all others. That is, even if they blunder, they are the ones who determine their chance for redemption.  

“Even if you lose your queen, if you’re patient, you can still win,” he said.

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