Kay Hamlin: Opening Doors in Education

May 21, 2024

‘I earned my CDA® in 1982,” Dr. Kay Hamlin says, “and I still have it on my bedroom wall.” The credential is there along with several certificates, licenses and degrees, including a Ph.D. in educational leadership and cultural foundations. Her dissertation was on Head Start parents who became teachers, and she based it partly on her own experience going from a single mom with a high school diploma to a professor of education. And Hamlin has gone on to a storied academic career that’s taken her from Havana, Cuba, to the Cape Coast in Ghana, where’s she’s been an invited speaker.

Hamlin has come a long way from the North Carolina farm where she spent the early years of her life. “I married straight out of high school and had three children by the time the marriage failed,” she recalls. “Then I worked as a bus driver and a substitute teacher while raising my children, one of whom attended Head Start.” And that’s where Hamlin got her start in the early childhood field. “One of the directors at Head Start asked me if I would like to be a teacher and Head Start sent me to earn my CDA. I gained information about child development and brain science that intrigued me and that I’ve explored more deeply in my career. The CDA opened doors for me, and I became a Head Start teacher supervisor and district education coordinator by the time my sons were ready to attend college.”

Once her sons were older, Hamlin was also ready to attend college. At age 39, she began an associate degree at Surry Community College and never stopped. She went on to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Salem College and her Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina when she was 50 years old. “It seemed like a far reach at the time,” Hamlin admits, “because I became a grandmother of three children while I was going to school. My first grandchild was born while I was earning my associate degree, the second while I was earning my bachelor’s and the last was born in 2004, when I completed my PhD. So, I call my grandchildren my degree babies.”

Those grandchildren have grown a lot in the 20 years since then. Hamlin’s career has also grown since her education opened even more doors. But Hamlin never forgot about the CDA, her introduction to higher education. “During my graduate studies, I would sometimes go back and peruse my CDA manual. So, I think the CDA is a wonderful tool for training teachers,” she says.

And she has a unique connection with the CDA because she met Edward Zigler, one of the architects of the Head Start program and the father of the CDA. “I went to a conference, where he spoke about Head Start,” Hamlin recalls. “Afterward, we spoke for a while, and one of the points he made was that you can’t touch the children unless you touch the parents,” and Hamlin knew exactly what he meant. As a Head Start parent, she had seen how the program opened that first door for her to succeed.

Hamlin’s experience as a Head Start parent helped her empathize with people in the early learning field as she used her talents to instruct adults. “When I was the district education coordinator for Head Start,” she says, “I was in charge of a lot of training. I got a feel for it and found that I really enjoyed teaching teachers. So, it was a natural path for me to go work at Surry Community College as the director and founding instructor of early childhood education. It was a different venue, but I was doing the same type of training.”

And there was something else that was familiar, Hamlin adds. “When I went into teaching at the community college level, I found myself teaching some of my former colleagues. They had come to Surry Community College to earn their CDAs.” And Hamlin’s experience as a CDA holder helped her achieve a 100 percent pass rate for her classes.

She did even more for her students as director of early childhood education at Surry. In addition to her classroom work, she developed an online program. She also played a substantial role in arranging an articulation agreement between Surry and several North Carolina institutes of higher ed. The agreement allowed Surry students to get college credits for the CDA courses and continue to advance their careers. And one student stands out in Hamlin’s mind for the success she achieved despite a rocky start.

“Susie came into my office one day and told me she was ready to quit the program though she was at the top of her class,” Hamlin recalls. “It turned out she was a single mom with three sons, one of whom was disabled, and didn’t feel like she could continue her studies. After hearing what she had to say, I saw many parallels with my own life. So, I turned to her and told her I’m a single mom with three sons, so I know what you’re going through. But you are just so smart, and your challenges give you insights that other people might not have into children. And after that chat, Susie just blossomed. She took a particular interest in brain science, something else we had in common, and she wound up getting a Ph.D. She even taught at Surry, like me, before going into administration for the North Carolina Community College System.”

Susie succeeded because Hamlin saw her potential. Having someone who believes in you will open doors, as Hamlin has seen in her own career. “When I was earning my master’s degree at Salem College, Dr. Susan Stewart introduced me to a Head Start grant project called Special Quest. I worked for them as a consultant and learning coach from 1997 to 2012, a role that led me to give national and international presentations on brain research and inclusion in early childhood education.”

These are the topics Hamlin has addressed in her many articles, which you cand find in publications like the Journal of Higher Education in Africa and Creative Communication and Education. Her research interests include international professional development for teachers, rural outreach and distance education, teachers in rural community schools and cultural diversity—a topic in which she gained some first-hand insights while volunteering with her church on a Native American reservation.

“It’s one thing to talk about cultural diversity, but it’s another thing to see it,” as Hamlin tells the students she now teaches as an adjunct professor at Salem University, where she earned her master’s degree back in the day. Hamlin retired from full-time teaching in 2014, but she keeps up with her field and always looks for new avenues to learn and share her knowledge.

Hamlin also spends time practicing the piano, a passion for the past 60 years, and plays for the choir at Salem Fork Baptist Church in Elkin. Hamlin has been worshipping there for 40 years and feels that she owes the congregation a lot of credit for her success. “They prayed for me during all those years when I was a single mom, going to school and striving to succeed. It was such a wonderful feeling knowing that God and my fellow Christians were in my corner,” she says. “My faith gave me strength to go through the doors that brought me to where I am today.”


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