Paige Hassel: Mentoring and Mothering in Memphis

October 22, 2020

Stroll through the halls at Bolton High School in Memphis, TN, and you’ll hear students call out “Ms. Paige, Ms. Paige!” Walk into her classroom on a typical day and you might see Paige Hassel guiding students as they use technology that helps young children recognize letters. Drop in another day and she’ll be consoling a student who’s had a bad day and helping her with a problem.

Paige wears a few different hats as department chair of career and technical education programs and a committed high school teacher who prepares her students for careers in the early care and education field. For the past five years, she’s been sharing her expertise and insights on what it takes to work with our youngest learners. “On day one of class,” she says, “I tell my students you don’t do this because you love young children—that’s a given. You do this because you’re willing to put in the work it takes to help kids develop and grow. It’s a demanding job that requires you to work hard and always be there for the children. You also have to be a performer who plays several roles in the course of a single day.”

And Paige has played them all during her 19 years in the ECE field. She’s pursued her career in Chattanooga, Chicago and now Memphis as her husband’s career took the couple around the country. “I began teaching kindergarten in public school before switching to ECE, where I’ve been an educator, an assistant director and a director.” She says she’s glad she made the change because teachers have more freedom in pre-K than they do in K-12, “where you have to follow a strict curriculum and conform to rigid standards.” Besides, “I have a lot of fun with preschoolers. It just brightens my day to be around them.” And she still gets to hang out with them since taking on her current goal to grow the pool of qualified teachers for young children.

“I’m now teaching high school students,” she says, “but we have an onsite preschool for local children. So, I have the best of both worlds. I get to see my smaller friends, as I call the preschoolers. I also get to see my taller friends, who attend my classes and hone their skills in the preschool. I tell my students that the children are at an age when you can play a vital role in their development and attitude toward learning. You’re planting seeds and that’s why it’s so important for you to earn your Child Development Associate® (CDA) credential.”

Paige began looking for ways for students to earn their CDA the first year she began teaching at Bolton High. “I like the CDA,” she says, “because it’s very hands-on, so you know what you’re getting into when you pursue a career in ECE.” And Paige has a good grasp of the accreditation process since she has gone through it. “I thought if I’m going to make my students get a CDA, I’m going to do it myself.”

This hands-on approach made Paige an effective center director in her previous role. “I never asked my teachers to do anything I wouldn’t do myself,” she recalls. “I wanted my teachers to know I appreciated them though there was never enough money to pay them as much as they deserved and give them the benefits they needed.” It’s a dilemma that plagues the profession as a whole and made it a challenge for Paige to keep competent, qualified staff.

This broad problem demands policy changes that were clearly beyond her control, but she did manage to get her students the money they needed to earn their CDA credential. “Our school has a lot of low-income students who can’t afford the fees they need for testing and assessment of their skills in the classroom,” she says, “and it took me two years to meet their needs.” She did a lot of work, put in a lot of hours and went to a lot of meetings. “It was a long, hard process,” she recalls, “but it was worth it since it was the students who won out.” In the past two years, 24 of them have received their CDA fees from the Tennessee Early Childhood Training Alliance (TECTA), a statewide group that promotes the growth of the ECE profession.

Paige has also taken steps to advance her field by speaking at the Tennessee CTE Summer Institute. “I talk to teachers across the state on how to help their students get the CDA credential,” she says. “I provide an overview of the CDA. I walk by them step by step through the credentialing process, describe how I help my students with their competency statements and explain what has worked for me.”

One key to Paige’s success is her active campaign to get students, including the school’s young men, engaged in ECE. “I hate the stereotype that men who want to work with young children are weird,” she says, “so I try to attract both males and females to my courses. I stand in the hall and interact with students between classes, so they get to know me and my program. I bring toddlers from our preschool to different classes and show students what we’re doing. We plant things in our school garden with the agricultural science students, sing Christmas carols and go trick or treating around the school. When it’s time for our preschool graduation, the kids put on little caps and gowns and parade throughout the classrooms.”

These adorable toddlers and Paige’s powers of persuasion are hard to resist. And her program attracts about 132 students a year. “Students approach me all the time about taking my class and say, ‘That looks like fun.’ I’m happy that they’re eager to enter the field,” Paige says, “and I encourage them to explore the different things they can do with their training besides teaching in a classroom.” Some have gone on to attend college and learn to be child life specialists or help children with special needs. And Paige is thrilled to see them use the CDA as a stepping stone to grow in their profession.

“It is the teacher’s highest goal to see her students be successful in the field for which she’s prepared them,” as Paige explains. And her support for them doesn’t end at graduation. For example, she mentors a student named Kylie who’s now in college getting a child life specialist degree. “She graduated two years ago, and she still calls me for help when she doesn’t understand something,” Paige says. “We’ll talk the issue through, and I’m happy that I can help her.”

Kylie isn’t the only one who knows she can call on Paige for career tips or a shoulder to cry on. “Every year, the seniors give me the ‘motherly award,'” Paige says, “because they know that I’m always there for them.” Even after they’ve put the halls of Bolton High behind them, they can still depend on Paige for mentoring and motherly advice. “I tell them I’m an email, a text or a phone call away,” she says. “So, just reach out.”

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