Atlanta Teacher Asks More of Herself So She Can Do More to Assist Young Children

June 25, 2020

Published by CounciLINK on June 25, 2020


Keisha-McClendonThe key word that comes up when you talk to Lakeisha McClendon is “more.” There seems no limit to how hard she’s willing to work to help young children develop and learn. Teaching is both her profession and her passion, as she points out when she recalls her 10 years as a Head Start teacher and five years as a Professional Development Specialist in area centers. “I go above and beyond what’s expected of me,” she says, “because I love my job. It isn’t work for me.”

Instead, it’s the fulfillment of the dream she had while studying early childhood education in college. She dropped out after three years to earn her living in graphic design, but she never forgot her dream of teaching young children. She decided she had to follow it after she brought her own children to kindergarten, where she saw that many of their peers weren’t ready for school since their parents didn’t know how to prepare them. “Everything happens for a reason,” she says. “When I saw what children were going through in the classroom, I knew I had to go back into early childhood education.”

With help from United Way, she became qualified to go work in an early childhood setting. “They trained me to be a substitute teacher and then sponsored me to earn my Child Development Associate® (CDA) credential. The CDA gave me the practical skills I needed to work with children,” she ways. “It taught me how to set up a classroom environment, keep children safe and be sensitive to different cultures. The CDA is the best, first step for people who want to go into the early childhood field.”

It also led Lakeisha to delve deeper into what makes children tick. “After earning my CDA, I wanted to learn more about early childhood development, so I got my associate’s and then my bachelor’s degree,” she says. In August, she’s going to start her master’s degree in early childhood services, and she also attends weekly training sessions online to hone her skills. But despite all her knowledge of the early childhood field, she doesn’t think that she—or any teacher for that matter—can give children everything they need to be school ready. “You also have to guide parents since they don’t always know what they need to do.”

She is still concerned about parent engagement, like she was when she brought her own children to school. “You can’t just send your kids to school,” she tells moms and dads. “You have to be involved in their education. You can’t just leave it to the teacher.” So, Lakeisha communicates a lot with parents and gives them activities they can do with their children. “I tell them this is our small community to help your child succeed.” And she gains her parents’ buy-in and trust, especially when they see what she’s helped their children learn.

The parents are especially impressed, Lakeisha explains, with all the social and emotional learning that goes on in her classroom. “For example, one parent came to me and talked about something striking her little girl had said the day before after doing something wrong. ‘When I started screaming at her,’ the mom recalled, she said, ‘Ms. Lakeisha told me, ‘it’s okay to make mistakes; you just have to clean them up.’ And it was so awesome to hear that the child had listened to what I said and thought it through.”

Lakeisha is good at getting through to young children because she tries to reach the whole child and answer their distinct needs. “I don’t teach to the book,” she says. “I teach children in tune with who they are because kids don’t all get something at the same time.” And some of her children in Head Start have special needs that pose steep challenges for them in the classroom. One child on the autism spectrum had disruptive outbursts until she taught him breathing techniques for calming down. Another child didn’t talk until he came to Lakeisha’s class where she gave him the personal attention he needed.

She’s also succeeded in getting other special needs children to fit in more with the group by partnering them with more typical children. “They not only learn from me,” she says. “They also learn from other children.”

And “watching these vulnerable children grow is really rewarding for me,” Lakeisha says. “They come to my classroom in August and they can’t even recognize their names. At the end of May, they’re writing their names. They can count, they’re interacting with others and they’re learning how to share.”

Many of the children Lakeisha serves don’t have much chance to pick up these lessons at home because they come from troubled backgrounds. “Many Head Start children have parents in prison, they’re being raised by grandma and granddad or they don’t have homes. But you’ve still got to love those children”

And Lakeisha has taken time away from work to make one homeless, little girl feel special. “I’ll go pick her up after school to get her out of the shelter,” Lakeisha says. “That child may be homeless, but she doesn’t need to believe, ‘This is the way I have to live.’ Children like this don’t need to think they have to be the product of their environment.”

Lakeisha works to bring children like this to a higher level of learning because her commitment to them goes way beyond the classroom “It’s about showing them that I have love for them,” she says, “and that I love what I do. I don’t want to be an average teacher, so I spend a lot of my own time researching ways I can assist children.”

She also passes on her knowledge to CDA students in the visits she makes as a PD Specialist to centers. “When I see someone do something wrong, I talk to them about it,” she says. “And it’s good practice for me because I plan to go into preschool administration and be a coach after I earn my master’s.” Lakeisha just loves going to school and getting new ideas and information to use in the classroom, she explains. “The more I learn, the more I can help young children.”

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