Courtney Atkinson is a rare jewel among those who serve Harris County Department of Education students. As the latest member in a long line of educators in her family, Atkinson has always loved to make a difference in students’ lives. But it was only recently that she decided to obtain her alternative teaching certification.
“I never thought I wanted to be a teacher, but it was just natural for me to be one,” said Atkinson. “My mom was a kindergarten teacher for 20 years, and my aunts, uncles—my family is full of educators.”
Inspired by her passion to help others succeed, Atkinson pursued a career serving students with special needs.
“My mom always encouraged me to go into education, and I have an uncle with Down syndrome,” said Atkinson. “That led me to want to work in special education.”
Atkinson, a California native, attended Texas Southern University. Following graduation, she worked as a behavior coach at the Houston Independent School District before joining HCDE in 2019.
“When I was at HISD, we had a speech therapist from HCDE come to our classroom to service a student, and he always encouraged me to apply for a job at HCDE. He said HCDE was so supportive of special education students. I took a leap of faith because I needed something different.”
Hired by Academic and Behavior School West Principal Victor Keys, Ed.D., Atkinson started as an educational aide. Shortly after, she became a relief teacher to take on more responsibility in the classroom.
“I love making a difference in children’s lives,” says Atkinson. “Something so small to someone as a student being able to write the first letter in their name is big to me because people don’t realize that special education children have struggles, and small things are big accomplishments. I just love the reward for the students.”
Last fall, despite the nationwide trend of educators leaving the profession, she decided to obtain a Special Education EC-12 certification that will allow her to teach special education students of all grades.
“I don’t want to give up on the kids. So many people already give up on them in their lives, and I don’t want to be one of them,” said Atkinson. “I decided in December to get my certification, and I was able to do my field-based experience quickly because I was already a relief teacher in the classroom. I studied for my content exams and special education certification test, and I passed it the first time. I’m in my intern year now.”
For Atkinson, the decision was prompted by her desire for additional leadership and the love of students.
“I just wanted full hands-on control of the classroom,” said Atkinson. “It’s different when it’s your classroom. You can be more creative with the lesson plans. People think that special education children can’t do everything. But learning can be modified and tailored to where they can do a whole algebra lesson. You just have to break it down so everyone succeeds in the classroom.”
Atkinson credits her success and confidence in the classroom to her colleagues.
“I have grown so much at HCDE over the last four years with the support from Dr. Keys, my assistant principal, Ms. Sanders, and the staff that welcomed me in when I first got here,” said Atkinson. “You can grow within this organization.”
But Keys, the ABS West principal, says Atkinson holds her own.
“I am so proud of her. I feel like she’s my daughter,” said Keys. “She is just so good at her job. She can work anywhere, but she chooses to stay at HCDE. Courtney is a person of her word. She didn’t give up on her dream to become a teacher, and for me, that’s priceless. I can retire in peace now knowing she is getting certified because she has been such an asset, a jewel.”
Part of what makes Atkinson unique is her connection with students and their families.
“She has an all-girl class, and I am so proud to say that I have two all-girl classes where the students are female, the assistants are female, and the teachers are female,” said Keys. “Knowing that those girls can be successful with the help of positive female role models is extraordinary. A lot of times, our students don’t get positive role models.”
This closeness extends far beyond the walls of the classroom.
“My parents call me every day,” laughs Atkinson. “On the weekends, they’ll text me. We go to birthday parties because our kids invite us to them. We’re very hands-on and we communicate every day with our parents, so it’s very personal. The parents see how passionate I am when I have their kids all day.”
Atkinson says what she loves most about working at ABS West is the consistent support she receives and encourages teachers or prospective educators to consider joining the HCDE team.
“At HCDE, they would get the support that they need. They will get the training. They will enjoy it. They will benefit from the growth of the children they will be working with. I would tell them to apply because they won’t regret it.”