Rebecca McGrath-Hinkle Opening Doors for Students in Columbus, Ohio

March 26, 2021

“You have to take advantage of opportunities as new doors open,” Rebecca likes to tell her CDA students at Columbus Downtown High School. “You might think you’re on one path, but other paths open.” And they did for her during 26 years in the teaching profession. She taught at a public preschool while taking courses in reading education. Her long-term plan was to keep teaching small children, but she had to switch gears when her preschool closed, and new prospects arose.

“The high school needed a reading specialist,” she recalls. “So, I wound up teaching middle and high school students who had trouble with their reading skills, and then there was an opening for an education instructor after a teacher retired.” She’s been doing that for ten years, and the last five have included training students to earn their CDA after Ohio made it a requirement for center staff. “I ended up switching jobs a number of times,” Rebecca explains, “to go where there was a need.”

But one thing has stayed the same in Rebecca’s long, wide-ranging career: she’s always wanted to be a teacher. “When I was a little girl,” she recalls, “I would play school and make my younger siblings be my students. Then when I actually went to school, I often served as a teacher’s helper. I was just always very interested in helping other people learn, and my sense of calling led me to attend a career center for education when I was in high school. Then I worked in a preschool during college and grad school, so I was always a nontraditional student.”

And she’s not exactly a traditional teacher when you consider just how far she goes to help her students succeed. Besides teaching her regular classes, she keeps in frequent touch with her students online, has regular one-on-one meetings with them, and discusses her students’ progress with their parents. She also gives her students the moral support they need when they’re feeling uncertain about their abilities and their achievements. “I tell them you don’t compare how you’re doing with someone else in the class. You measure your achievements by looking at where you are, what you’re struggling with and where you want to get to by the end of the week. It’s about having them progress along their own path.”

A credential can give them a way ahead, as she shows Downtown High students each year when she’s recruiting for her CDA program. “We make visits to eighth-grade and tenth-grade classes. We film promotional videos and I do a PowerPoint presentation with a lot of images. I talk about how the CDA will help you get college credit, increase your chance of employment and help you get paid a higher wage. I also talk about how you can use the credential to open your own preschool and that’s another selling point. Many Downtown students are very entrepreneurial, especially the guys. They often plan on coaching sports, so I get them interested in the CDA program by explaining to them that most coaches are teachers.”

The young men who do enroll in the program sometimes change their career plans and decide to stay in the early childhood classroom after starting their CDA. “When I tell them that they have to work with infants and toddlers, they’re not especially excited,” Rebecca wryly admits. “Then they find themselves in a center with these adorable, little toddlers all over them and they’re thrilled to see ‘these kids really like me.’ It turns out they have a chemistry with young children, and that’s what it takes to succeed in the ECE field. I can see the students, whether boys or girls, who have that parenting instinct the first time I take them to meet a group of young children. And I think people who stay in the field just have this natural calling.”

Not everyone’s got it and each year Rebecca has a couple of students who realize “this job just isn’t for me.” So, Rebecca works with the school district to put them on another career path, as she explains. “Sometimes you have to get to know them and let them tell you what they’re thinking and feeling. It can be a lot of work to help them transition out of ECE and find a different program, but I feel a sense of commitment to help them. I realize they’re on a journey—like I’ve been during my own career—and they’re trying to figure things out. So, when they decide to leave the program, I tell them, ‘It’s a good thing you learned this now instead of in college and then found yourself stuck with an education degree you didn’t want to use.'”

Meanwhile, most of her CDA students are eager to work in the ECE field, Rebecca explains, but struggle with some roadblocks as they try to reach their goal. “I usually have at least three students with learning disabilities each year, and I also tend to have a couple of students for whom English is a second language. That can change the way I teach them because they’re learning to read English while they’re learning about early childhood and the CDA as well.”

As Rebecca assists them, her expertise as a reading specialist comes in handy. “I use the techniques of enriched reading, which basically means finding something that a learner really wants to read. In some cases, I have my students select a children’s book they like,” she says, “and have them practice reading it with me before they go and read it to the young children.” It’s a sequence of steps that helps students gain both the confidence and reading skills they need, Rebecca explains. And she took a similar approach with a boy whose goal was to fill out job applications on his own. “We practiced reading and filling out job applications all the time,” she recalls. “It helped him work with more purpose and wound up improving his reading skills all around.”

Rebecca is proud of how she helped students like this progress, but her greatest success came with Skye, a special needs student who’d always struggled in English class and didn’t expect to go to college. “She could verbalize what she wanted to say but had trouble writing it down,” Rebecca says, and this posed a problem when Skye had to write her CDA Competency Statement. “So, I would have her tell me out loud what she wanted to say, and I would write it down. Then I would read it back to her and tell her, ‘I’m writing the words, but it’s all your work.'”

Rebecca’s warm words of reassurance—and her patient help—increased Skye’s confidence and skills so much that she did manage to get her CDA. She’s now working with infants and toddlers while attending community college and working on her associate degree. “It’s taking her a little longer to get her degree than it does the average student since she only takes one or two classes at a time,” Rebecca says, “But she’s getting better at her studies all the time and tells me I changed her life.” Rebecca opened a door of opportunity for Skye that she never dreamed she could go through.


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