Kathy Hollowell-Makle was shocked to learn she’d been named the 2013 DC Public Schools Teacher of the Year. “The previous school year had been one of the rockiest in her life on both a personal and a professional level. “I had a student,” she recalls, “who would tear at my clothes, urinate on me and display extreme emotional outbursts. My sister’s husband died, my father was brutally assaulted during a home invasion, and my son was in the hospital for a week. All these things caused me to miss 25 days of the school year. Yet my principal put me up for the honor, she explained, because ‘you still persevered to do your best.’”
And that brought out the children’s best. More than 80 percent of her students advanced two or more reading levels, a feat that made Hollowell-Makle feel good. “There is joy in teaching, especially when you know you’re making an impact on children,” Hollowell-Makle says. She also had the thrill of meeting then Second Lady Jill Biden, who presented her with the award, and would go on to invite her to President Barack Obama’s 2014 State of the Union Address. Hollowell-Makle was even a guest at a White House reception where she met Michelle Obama, former First Lady of our nation.
All the acclaim would bring Hollowell-Makle into the public eye and give her a platform to speak out for her profession. Two years ago, it would also lead to her current role as executive director of the DC Association for the Education of Young Children (DCAEYC)—something Hollowell-Makle never envisioned when she was a young college student deciding on a career.
“I like to say that teaching found me, instead of me finding it,” Hollowell-Makle says. “I always intended to go to law school after attending college.” But she changed her mind after doing volunteer work teaching adult education. “I came to realize that the public schools weren’t doing enough to help people succeed,” she says. “So, I decided to join Teach for America and see if I could make a difference by working with younger people. I wound up being placed at Green Elementary School in Southeast DC as a kindergarten teacher, and I absolutely fell in love with the work. It was so natural and innate for me to interact with young children that it didn’t feel like a job.”
Granted it wasn’t easy, she admits. “My time at Green was during the crack epidemic of the 90s, and the children faced adversity like I had never seen before. Many of the children came from homes plagued by substance abuse, poverty, neglect or other problems. But what struck me was the level of community support for teachers, parents and children who faced struggles at home,” Hollowell-Makle recalls. And “I was inspired to be a better person and a better teacher, so I earned a master’s in education and learned new skills that served me well.”
She also embarked on a new phase in her career after teaching at Green for 10 years and going to work at Stanton Elementary, where she taught 3-year-old children. “I had never taught children that young, and it really opened my eyes to the importance of pre-K. Teachers who work with older elementary students think that teaching 3-year-old children is just fun and play. But it’s education. An academic day for a 3-year-old is learning how to socialize with new peers, learning how to play, learning how to share, learning how to wash their hands, how to put their coat on, how to be in a different environment than home. And their learning curve is very high.”
So is their sense of excitement at what they experience every day. “The world is brand-new to them,” Hollowell-Makle says, “and they find joy and excitement in the littlest things. We would peel oranges and the children were mesmerized as they watched juice spray when you peeled back the skin, looked at the pores in the oranges and smelled the skin. there was just wonderment as they made connections about the world and built up their foundational knowledge.”
Children need experiences like these if they are to succeed in school, and Hollowell-Makle would help them excel after she went on to teach kindergarten again. “Stanton went through some changes,” she recalls, “and I needed a new job. I found one at Simon Elementary School, where the principal thought I would be a good match for her kindergarten classroom. I would have preferred to stay in pre-K. Still, it turned out to be a wonderful experience. The culture in that building was that every student was your student. It didn’t matter if that child was in pre-K, third grade or fifth grade. And that culture flowed from the janitorial staff to the principal of the school. It felt like its own village, which is the way schools should be,” she points out.
Hollowell-Makle thrived there. So did her students as she vastly increased their skills in reading. The key, she explains, is to work with children one on one. “There are scores of reading guides,” she says, “but they never especially worked for me. Not every child is ready to read at the same age, so I always worked with one child at a time. I encouraged parents to bring their children before or after school to get in that added one-on-one time. I would also pair a middle reader with a high reader, who could help them out. And the classroom had a teddy bear named Book Buddy, who the children could also read to.”
Book Buddy was there when the chancellor of DC Public Schools, the principal of Simon, and other school administrators came into the classroom and told Hollowell-Makle she’d been named teacher of the year. That was a surprise. And another one was soon in store one day when she picked up the phone. “I got a call from the president of the DCAEYC, offering me a free membership and inviting me to join their board. I didn’t respond at first because I was busy doing speaking engagements and taking extra classes, but DCAEYC wouldn’t give up. So, I ended up joining the board and took a deep dive into the 0-3 space, including the pressing challenges of compensation for teachers and access for children to the early care and education they need.”
The cost of child care in the District is sky high, Hollowell-Makle had seen as a mom of two. “When my children were young, I had to drive them to Upper Marlboro, a distant suburb, for child care that I could afford. My children spent three hours of their day in a car. And that is not fair for any child or for any working parent. Every child deserves to have high-quality, affordable and accessible learning in their neighborhood or near where their parent works.”
Access to early learning depends on an adequate supply of teachers. And low compensation in the early childhood field has long led to a shortage. So, Hollowell-Makle set out to unify the members of the early childhood workforce, whether they were in home-based settings, public schools or public sectors. As part of this effort, Hollowell-Makle went to the Washington Teachers Union and convinced them to sign on to a memorandum. Together, DCAEYC and the union agreed to form a task force whose purpose was to support the instructional practice of early education. “I led that task force from 2016 to 2019,” Hollowell-Makle says, “when I became the first paid executive director, long a volunteer role, in the history of the DCAEYC.”
At this point Hollowell-Makle gave up teaching after a 22-year career in the early childhood education field. “I miss the children immensely,” she admits, “but I don’t miss the bureaucracy. And I know my work here will reach far more children than I could possibly teach. I’m now involved in advocacy and policy work to make early learning a priority for all children in the District.”
So, Hollowell-Makle is a fierce supporter of the early childhood teachers who support DC children. “One of my goals,” she explains, “is to ensure educators in the 0-3 space are paid on parity with public school teachers who have the same credentials. Another is workforce development, so I recently testified before the DC City Council and asked them to support programs that offer the Child Development Associate® (CDA) at no cost to residents of DC. The CDA is an entry point into the early childhood field, and we need to make sure there’s an adequate pipeline of folks who want to enter the profession.”
Another key issue is retention, so Hollowell-Makle is also working with the city council to ensure all educators get adequate pay. “Though teaching is a work of the heart,” she says, “you can’t work from the heart if your stomach is growling, and you can’t take care of your family.” Granted, federal COVID relief is making difference, and she’s now working with the city council to distribute $53 million in relief funds to the profession. But the funds aren’t enough to solve a problem that long preceded the pandemic: the dire long-term shortage of early educators in the city.
That demands a change in mindset, Hollowell-Makle explains. “We don’t want people to think this is something I’ll do until Amazon calls me. We want people to understand that this is a career, and you are a professional whether you have a CDA, an AA or a BA. And we encourage our teachers to keep moving ahead with their education. In addition, we’re urging all educators to become advocates for their field. So, we’re now conducting training sessions to help our early childhood teachers learn how to be advocates, understand the players in the city, and know how to tell lawmakers their stories.”
Hollowell-Makle’s own story shows how far you can go in the early childhood field. And she’s drawn a major lesson as she looks back on her career. “I never expected to be an early childhood teacher. I never expected to be named teacher of the year. And I never expected to be the executive director of a nonprofit. You never know where life if going to take you,” she says. “But wherever it takes you, you always need to do your best.” And Hollowell-Makle has because she’s devoted to young children in DC.