‘The best version of themselves’: Educators’ legacies extend beyond the classroom

Published 11:25 am Saturday, March 4, 2023

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When it comes to legends or people who leave a legacy, few rank higher than educators.

The men and women who dedicate themselves to teaching, forming and help spark an interest in learning play a critical role in our community. And they leave a lasting impression on the young children who pass through their class. The best among them will inspire youngsters and challenge students to stretch and grow, building confidence and knowledge at the same time.

And this year, as The Democrat focused its Profile 2023 edition on Legends and Legacies, we asked several Miss-Lou principals to share what drives their passion for education.

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Leaders in Education

What does a typical day look like for a school administrator?

Elementary principals like Toni Martin of McLaurin and Susie B. West Principal and Assistant Principal LaToya Scott-Hammett and Norm Yvon start their day early enough to see the little ones climbing off of the school buses or out of their parents’ cars.

There is no feeling like 5-year-olds looking up at you with smiling faces, Martin said. “I have the best job in the world.”

Martin said her little scholars can quickly turn a bad day into a good one and every day gets a good laugh at something one of them does or says. However, “working in an elementary school will always keep you on your feet,” she said.

Morgantown Elementary Principal Angela Reynolds had little scholars continuously popping in and out of her office on a recent Wednesday morning, including one that needed a complete change of clothes.

Rather than start her career off in education, Reynolds said she was a social worker for 10 years and taught in a classroom for two. She then transitioned into an assistant principal role in 2018.

“My experience in those other roles has helped me in this one,” she said. “It helps me to see the whole child and not just the academic pieces and enhances my people skills. I think it was just in me. I remember being a child and always wanting to play teacher. It’s a calling.”

Midday on a Monday, Yvon was shuffling to the bottom of his desk drawer fishing for his last multi-colored Band-Aid to doctor up a tiny booboo on another child’s finger.

A native of Massachusetts, Yvon has been an educator for approximately 35 years and received his administrator certification from Harvard. He is a former headmaster of Cathedral School, but mostly his love has been working in elementary schools.

“No matter where I’ve been in education, from classroom teacher to superintendent, I’ve always considered myself a teacher,” Yvon said. “It’s just that my classroom has changed from a classroom to a building full of kids and teachers to a district full of kids and teachers.”

The most rewarding part, Yvon said, is “Seeing kids get it.”

“If it weren’t for the kids, I would be doing something else,” Yvon said. “Even before I knew I was going into education, my chemistry and pre-med head was leaning toward pediatrics.”

Whether or not they started their careers out in education, each principal gave the same reason why they do the job — the children.

“The best part of my day is the students—meeting them in the hallway or as they get out of the car,” said Kimberly Burkley, Elementary Principal at Cathedral School. “I’ve always felt a calling to make a difference in children’s lives.”

In addition to looking out for their children’s academic needs, Burkley and Robin Branton, Middle and High School Principal at Cathedral, both said they also want to take care of their students’ spiritual welfare.

“We both have a passion for not only education but also the Catholic School and environment,” Branton said. “That is very important to our school’s mission and what we want to see every day. We have a 35 percent Catholic community. Our students are not all Catholic, but we want to at least teach them the values and morals to grow and give them some goal in their faith to strive for.”

“We live for those ‘aha’ moments,” said Beth Guedon, Elementary Principal at Adams County Christian School. In addition to helping kids succeed, Guedon said, “I wanted to be the person that encouraged teachers,” as her motivation for becoming an administrator.

Christina Daugherty started her career as a lawyer until her children were enrolled at Trinity Episcopal School and they needed a headmaster.

“I was interested in my children’s education,” she said. “It’s actually not that different. Running a school is kind of like running a business. Everyone in my family is in law enforcement in one form or another. I went to law school to go into the FBI academy and ended up taking a different path.”

Daughterty’s position at ACCS is Vice Principal, but she wears a lot of other hats. She teaches two classes and helps with public relations, assists the junior varsity dance coach and coaches archery and soccer.

“Education is fun,” she said. “One day is never like to next and you never know what to expect.”

As an alumnus of ACCS, Coach Rick Fife, High School Principal, said as early as kindergarten some of his teachers motivated him to be an educator himself. In his 23 years as an educator, he has coached almost every sport but loves teaching more than anything else, even as an administrator, he said.

“I love teaching history and helping kids understand it,” he said. “It’s rewarding to see them be successful and I’ve actually been here so long that I’m teaching some of my student’s kids.”

Some may think that principals have it easy, but that is not the case, Martin said.

“When people hear how sure I am about enjoying being a principal, they assume it must be really easy,” she said. “It is not easy. If anything, it is one of the most challenging jobs to have; however, at the same time, it is the most rewarding.”

Principals handle the paperwork and the parent phone calls and keep an eye out for maintenance needs in school facilities. At the same time, they are also tasked with discipline and spend a fair amount of time in classrooms with students doing observations.

Natchez Middle School Principal Orisha Brown Mims has her hands full this school year dealing with not only the usual needs of a school but also the ongoing renovation of a school that now, in February, is almost finished.

Students had a very unique first day back to school learning their way around the new facilities at the old Natchez High School around orange construction fences and contractors installing new equipment.

As she talked, one popped into Mims’ office and asked her where to put the button for the pushbutton locking and unlocking mechanism on the gate.

“The biggest transition for us has been maneuvering through the renovations but the transitioning of schools has been an easy transition,” she said. “We didn’t have any accidents or injuries and were able to get through all the moving pieces with minimal disruption.”

Mims, a Natchez native, was named administrator of the year last year. While attending the University of Southern Mississippi, her original goal was to study physical therapy.

“I always knew teaching was a part of me, I just tried to run from it,” she said. “Coming from a family where I was a first-generation college graduate, I was looking at dollar signs and I knew teachers didn’t make a lot of money. … But I knew that is where my heart is. I saw how hard my mom and dad worked even without college degrees and they always preached to us to be better and do better.”

She was a teacher for six years in Jefferson County before becoming principal at Joseph Frazier Elementary, Morgantown Middle School and now Natchez Middle School. She has now been an administrator going on 10 years.

“For me, it’s not about management. It’s about helping teachers be the best version of themselves to help their children become the best version of themselves,” she said. “I tell people I have 600-plus children. I want them to be exposed to and have access to the same things that I would want for my three biological children.”

Martin said just as an administrator saw the potential in her to lead a school and mentored her, she also has the opportunity to do the same for someone else.

“I was content with being a classroom teacher for my entire career,” Martin said. “I saw myself teaching for 20-25 years and then retiring. Luckily for me, someone saw something in me and gave me an opportunity.”

Greater still, Martin said, is the opportunity to make an impact on children’s lives and be a positive influence on them.

“Even though I am no longer a classroom teacher, I have not let the classroom go. … I find time to be in the classroom engaging with students while they learn. Often, I will jump in with the teacher to help teach a lesson. The joy and love of teaching have not gone away. … Being a principal takes a lot of time and dedication. Seeing a former student in the community, at a store, or even here at my school, and knowing their successes make it all worth it,” she said.