Keshia Jenkins: A Commitment to Keep Going

May 27, 2021

Keshia-Jenkins“Every child deserves a childhood they don’t have to recover from,” Keshia Jenkins maintains. But many children don’t get it, as Keshia saw during 20 years as an early childhood teacher on the south side of Tallahassee. “When children came to Miracles in Me, the child care center where I was working, they were often tired or hungry, and some of them came from homes where they experienced trauma,” Keshia recalls. So, she would try to give them the sense of reassurance they so badly needed. “I would start every day by closing my door and telling the kids, ‘You are safe here. Whatever is going on in your world out there, this is a safe place.'”

Keshia has known how to get across to young children since she found her vocation at age 12. “I was at a family reunion, where I was playing on the floor with the little kids, when one of my older cousins walked up to me. She was an early childhood teacher, and she said, ‘I’m handing the torch over to you. You’re the next teacher in the family.'”

That cousin was right, as Keshia realized after she finished high school and found a job at a day care. “I started as a floater,” she recalls, “and I loved those babies so much that I wanted to perfect my craft. I received my CDA in 2014, and it opened my eyes to best practices and how children learn.” It also inspired her to advance her education and go on to get her associate degree in 2017. Last month she earned her bachelor’s in early childhood education, and this fall she’s starting her master’s in ECE, with an emphasis on special education. She also takes new training courses all the time because she knows that teachers must never stop learning.

And all the education she’s pursued has allowed her to advance her career. Keshia has worked her way up to a teacher, then an administrator, then finally a director. And last year she started her own business, Brain Building Consulting, to help centers serve young children better. “I assist the centers with class management, teacher retention, behavioral management and class observation,” she explains. “I’m also a family child care provider on the weekends and at night. I provide care to a lot of parents who work in hospitals, law enforcement or Walmart and don’t have traditional hours. There aren’t a lot of providers who offer that kind of care in my area, so I provide it to parents who need it.”

Keshia puts herself out for parents like this because she knows where they’re coming from. And she’s been there. “I’m a single mom,” she explains, “and I remember how hard it was when I was working at the center, holding another job, trying to find care for my kids, and getting an education. When I was getting my bachelor’s, I was so tired I would have dropped out in my last semester if my advisor, Cammy Quick, hadn’t convinced me to keep going. ‘You have a gift, and the world needs you,’ Dr. Quick firmly insisted. So, I kept going and I want these parents to keep going, too. The services I provide them come from my heart.”

So does the assistance and guidance that she provides to centers through her business. As a woman of color, she wants to make a strong impact on minority-owned centers in low-income areas of Tallahassee. “The funding and the training often aren’t there,” she explains, and that makes an impact on the children. “I’ve seen what’s going on at many of the centers with children being suspended or kicked out.” And the reason, she’s convinced, is that teachers don’t get properly trained to handle the kids. “Sometimes they start out with good intentions but get overwhelmed by all the requirements and laws. So, I want to show the educators that I’m in this with you.”

She expects that our early child teachers will face especially great challenges in the coming year. “We have a whole cohort of babies who are growing up in quarantine and have only seen mommy for a whole year. So, they’re going to have socio-emotional delays. Our early childhood teachers are going to have to teach them about compassion and sharing.” The teachers will also be dealing with language delays, Keshia explains, because the children haven’t had much interaction with other adults and kids. “It is proven that when children can’t communicate with you, their behavior is going to be affected and they’ll get easily frustrated or upset.” So, the work of getting children socially ready for kindergarten is only going to get harder.

Social and emotional skills matter, as kindergarten teachers admit to Keshia. “I always ask them, ‘What can I do to prepare my babies for you?’ And they tell me we need the children to be socially ready. Can they share with a friend? Can they wait in line? Can they sit and listen to a song? Do they know how to be kind and love one another?” They don’t teach these skills in kindergarten and they’re the foundation of learning.

“We now have a whole generation of children who are coming in behind the finish line,” Keshia says, “and we’re going to have to take them from where they are to where they should be.” And that’s a lot of work for a profession that doesn’t get the recognition it deserves, as Keshia has seen in her own life. “When I tell people I’m in early childhood education, they sometimes say, ‘You’re not a real teacher.’ But I insist that I’m just as much a teacher as an elementary school teacher. Sometimes I feel I’m even more important because the brain grows at such a rapid rate in the years from birth to five. As early childhood teachers, we’re in charge of taking that developing brain and making it great.”

That’s a lot to ask from folks who often face the same hardships as the low-income families they serve. “How can you expect me as an educator to compartmentalize?” Keshia asks. “The families are having trouble putting food on the table. I’m having trouble putting food on the table. My lights were turned off the night before, and then I come into a classroom of children whose lights were turned off the night before, too. How can you expect me to afford my training, to pay for my student loans?”

Keshia wants some answers, so she’s advocating for our early childhood teachers. “I work with some local groups who support our field, I go to conferences where I meet local government people and I email lawmakers to start a conversation. It’s very grassroots work, and I often put myself outside my comfort zone,” she admits. “But I keep going because I’m determined to make a positive impact on a profession that I love.”

Keshia has also brought this sense of passion to her current work as a consultant for early childhood centers. “While I was doing training at one of the centers,” she recalls, “I met a single teen mom who was working as a classroom aide. I don’t think she really set out to be an early childhood teacher. But I saw something in her, so I became her mentor. She’s earned her CDA, is now getting her associate degree, and has become a wonderful teacher.” This young woman’s life has changed, and the turning point may have come when Keshia spoke the words that Cammy Quick had used to make her persist: “You have a gift. Keep going.”

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