Monquelle Shamburger: Making Students Feel like Family
January 26, 2023
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Monquelle asks a lot from the students she teaches at A.H. Parker High School in Birmingham, AL. “I hold them to a high standard because they’re our future teachers,” she says. “They’re all working toward earning their Child Development Associate® (CDA) Credential™.” and Monquelle is intent on helping them succeed. “Whenever my students give me an excuse for not doing their work,” Monquelle says, “I tell them the same thing: Excuses are monuments of nothingness. They build bridges to nowhere. Those who use these tools of incompetence are masters of nothingness”—words that Monquelle’s eighth-grade teacher, Miss Hunter, made all her students recite every day.
And Monquelle repeats them to her CDA® students because she wants them to value the chance the credential gives them to build a career, an opportunity she didn’t have at their age. “When I was in high school,” she recalls, “career and technical education was about things like keyboarding and business, marketing, cosmetology and graphic art. But we didn’t have education classes that taught you about being a teacher. Now that’s changed because Alabama is providing free preschool for all four-year-old children in the state and it’s providing more funds to train professionals in the early childhood field. So that’s a focus at the Birmingham Public High Schools, where they started an Academy for Urban Educators program in 2015. It’s specially designed to help high school students become early childhood teachers by earning their CDA.”
Monquelle serves there as both a CDA teacher and CTE department chair, a bit of a switch from how she began her career after graduating from college. “I was an elementary school teacher and reading coach at Fairfield Elementary School, also in the Birmingham metro area, for many years before I began teaching CDA courses at Fairfield High. They were starting a new program to help high school students become early childhood teachers and they needed someone with a BA in early childhood or elementary education,” Monquelle recalls. “I fit the description and that’s how I transitioned into teaching high school.”
Making the change was a challenge at first, as Monquelle admits. “But I was able to connect with teachers from other states and get information on how they ran their CDA programs. In time, I caught on and figured out how I could put their suggestions to work in my classroom. It helped that many of my high school students knew me since I had already taught them when they were in first grade. Back then, much of my work was about teaching them to open milk bottles and tie their shoe strings. Now they were far more independent, so I had to figure out new ways to engage them.”
Much of what Monquelle does with her students is very interactive and hands on. “We have a pre-K program that’s on site, so we do a lot of observations of different teachers,” Monquelle explains. “Then we go back to the classroom and talk about how the different components of the CDA apply to what they’ve just seen. We also do a lot of role playing on issues like how to handle parents, and they have to come up with different activities that they can employ in the classroom. I recently had them do a sample lesson plan, and some of them struggled but managed to complete it in the end.”
Monquelle says she gives them the motivation they need by talking about how all their hard work will lead to a career. “There’s great value to earning a CDA,” I explain, “especially if you don’t want to spend another four years in college. If you want to get a job in child care, you can put the CDA on your resume, and that will put you on top of the applicant list. You’ll be more marketable in the workforce”—a message Monquelle also imparts when she’s recruiting students for the CDA program at Parker High.
“We start in eighth grade by going out to our middle schools and high school CTE programs,” Monquelle says. “We bring in guest speakers and I do video or PowerPoint presentations to show all the great activities our CDA students are doing. I also organize visits to our on-site preschool and that gets a lot of students fired up about the early childhood field. They tell me they didn’t realize that working with young children was so cool, and a lot of them don’t want to leave,” Monquelle says. “So I encourage them by telling them we need more great teachers to come and give back to our communities and our schools.”
Despite the great demand for early childhood teachers, Monquelle is very selective about who she accepts into the CDA program. “We try to keep the classes small in the Academy for Urban Educators program,” she says. “I don’t have time for students who aren’t ready to focus and do the work. So, applicants to my program must have good recommendations and a good GPA. They also have to be suited to the early childhood profession. So, we do career assessments and bring applicants to our preschool to see how well they interact with the children. You can’t get in the program just because you say I want to be in your class. You must be committed to doing the work.”
And once students do get into the program, they have to perform or Monquelle weeds them out like she recently did one girl who simply didn’t live up to her expectations. “She wasn’t engaging with the other students when we worked in groups,” Monquelle says, “and that was a problem since teaching involves a lot of collaboration. You have to know how to work with others on curriculums and lesson plans. You have to know how to talk with parents, skills the student wasn’t learning since she spent a lot of time sitting alone and staring at her phone. So, I met with her parents,” Monquelle recalls, “and told them their daughter was not going to be in the program next year. I couldn’t risk sending her out into the field because it would be bad for children.” Besides, it wouldn’t put the school’s CDA program in the positive light that it deserves.
Monquelle has a special tie to A.H. Parker High, as she explains, because she was once a student there, too. “I never dreamed I would teach at Parker since I expected to retire at Fairfield after teaching there for 17 years. But an opening came up when Parker’s CDA instructor decided to retire. So, I’ve been here for five years, and it feels good. I now work with some of my former teachers. I went to school with some of my students’ parents,” Monquelle says. And she has some wonderful students, including Michelle, a girl who has especially excelled.
“Michelle is now a tenth grader,” Monquelle says, “and she’s already earned some of the experience hours for her CDA. While I arrange for most of the other students to get their hours, Michelle has already volunteered to work at a day care center during her summer vacation and school breaks. She’s way ahead of my other tenth graders, so she sticks out in my mind as someone who sees the value of the CDA and really wants to earn it.”
Michelle has what it takes to succeed in the early childhood field, as Monquelle points out. “Some people say they’re called to teach, and they may be sincere. Still, teaching isn’t easy. It can be very frustrating, especially when you have 18 children in a classroom and 10 are acting up in challenging ways. So, you need to have enough passion to persevere,” Monquelle explains. It also helps if you can act on one of the guiding rules of her long career: “whatever you expect or whatever you want for your own kids, you’ve got to want the same for everybody else’s kid.”
It’s something Monquelle learned many years ago from her kindergarten teacher, Miss Hudson. “She was the sweetest teacher I’ve ever had,” Monquelle recalls. “She taught all my family members, and she made everyone in her class feel like we were part of her family—the way I’ve always aspired to be,” Monquelle says. Sure, she can be tough on students who don’t try to do their best. But there’s a softer side to Monquelle, as she reveals. “I try to create a family atmosphere in my classroom and make students feel they can talk to me about anything at all, whether it’s a personal issue or what they want to do after graduation.”
And watching the students mature over their high school years is the biggest reward of Monquelle’s job. “I love watching those light bulbs go off as they advance from ninth to twelfth grade,” she says, “and figure out what they want to do with their lives. I’m willing to do everything I can to guide these high school students since they make up the next generation in our field. Our children deserve good teachers, so I tell my students they should do everything they can to improve as professionals in the early childhood field. And one of the best ways for them to do that is to graduate high school with their CDA.”
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