Maia Chaka has been a health and physical education teacher, working with students with unique needs at Renaissance Academy in Virginia Beach, Va. since 2006.
But this year, Renaissance Academy, part of the public school system, was not unlike the thousands of schools across the country that had to transform curricula and teaching methods during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Like all of her teaching colleagues Chaka had to adapt. But throughout it all, she held a worry – that with transformed classrooms, students might struggle.
That's why she co-facilitated a professional development for the school's faculty to help capture students when they're online, to help them want to come to the virtual classroom and, once their faces pop up on the Zoom calls, to help make lessons more engaging.
Then, when an extended family member was displaced a couple of months ago because of a weather emergency, Chaka went out-of-state to help, again.
She did that all the while becoming the first Black woman to ever be named to the NFL's officiating staff, an announcement the league made Friday morning.
Maia Chaka is the first Black female official in NFL history. (Photo: Charles LeClaire, USA TODAY Sports)
"She cares for her immediate family and her extended family," Kay Thomas, the director of alternative education at Renaissance Academy told USA TODAY Sports. "She cares for her kids here. She cares for her profession. She cares for her refereeing. That's a lot to organize and carry, but she pulls it all off with a tremendous amount of grace."
Chaka's colleagues at Renaissance Academy use adjectives like consistent and reliable, but also quiet, "a leader by example who inspires confidence."
Chaka has volunteered for student-staff basketball games and has participated in intramural programs. She sponsored a mentorship club for girls, which was recognized at the district level. She has spoken to other high schools.
Her talks to the students at Renaissance Academy and other local high schools have similar themes: overcoming adversity, that hard work and dedication pays off. She's a member of the school's Positive Intervention Program and is in the process of developing a challenge for students to demonstrate how they're being kind, showing respect and acting responsibly.
Congratulations to Ms. Chaka!! What a great role model for young women everywhere. Thank you @TODAYshow for highlighting one of our own.#wedogreatthings#vbcps#NFLhttps://t.co/4Cc5LmqJk8
It's no surprise to her colleagues, therefore, that she won a Teacher of the Year award at Renaissance several years back. It's also why when assistant principal Dolores Phipps was looking to add someone to a committee she was on, she thought of Chaka.
"She did it so willingly and hit the ground running," Phipps told USA TODAY Sports. "She brought suggestions forward. She's proactive. But more than anything, she's engaged in our children."
Chaka joins the NFL after having served as an official in the Pac-12 and Conference USA.
In 2014, she was selected for the NFL's Officiating Development Program, which identifies talented officials working in college and helps give them exposure and experiences like that of NFL officials to serve as a potential pipeline.
And while her colleagues knew about her interest and work as an official, many didn't know just how invested and proficient she was.
"To be honest with you, we wouldn't have known all of this about her," Dr. Aaron Spence, the superintendent of Virginia Beach City Public Schools, told USA TODAY about her work in refereeing. "She's not walking around and talking about it. She's more about doing it. It's just who she is. "
The announcement of Chaka's appointment comes as the Virginia School Boards Association has designated March as the Equity in Education Month.
March is also celebrated as National Women's History Month.
That only makes the timing of Chaka's ground-breaking accomplishment all the more momentous for her students.
"We have a saying here, that 'Great dreams need great teachers,' " Spence said. "She exemplifies that and is, quite frankly, a role model for so many people. For our young women who we hope can see what she has been able to accomplish because of her commitment to her career both as a teach and in athletics, to our African-American students — she's an inspiration. We're just so very proud of her."
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