Rochelle Mullins: Leading the Way for Young Learners

March 23, 2022

“Early childhood education is my passion. That matters more than the pay,” Rochelle says while reflecting on her 38 years in the field. And it’s a good thing she feels that way because early childhood teachers—especially assistant teachers like Rochelle—don’t earn as much as they deserve. Rochelle needs to work part-time at a grocery store to make ends meet, besides teaching the children all day at Flance Early Learning Center in St. Louis, Missouri.

Rochelle began teaching there in June 2019, right in the middle of the pandemic, “a hard time to start,” as she recalls. “I was concerned about my health and that of my family. It wasn’t easy to have the children social distance, and it was tricky to interact with them while wearing a mask.”

The children couldn’t see Rochelle smile, but her sense of commitment to them came through. Working with young learners is the fulfillment of a childhood dream, as Rochelle explains. “I’ve always wanted to be an educator because I was inspired by an aunt and uncle who were teachers. As a little girl, I liked to play school, and when I was 18, I took a training course on how to be an early childhood teacher.” That led to a position at Learning Tree Nursery, where Rochelle taught for 11 years, followed by a couple of years at the Nursery Foundation, then 12 years at Grace Hill Settlement House, a community development project. While there, she worked in a Head Start program and supported very poor families in gaining self-reliance.

“Many of the parents needed housing, job training and help getting off drugs so they could get back on their feet,” she says. And though the parents had hit a low point in their lives, Rochelle never made them feel ashamed or ill-at-ease. “I left a good impression on these folks,” she says, “because I made it clear that I always wanted the best for them and their children. I used to tell them, ‘I’m not here to hurt you. I’m here to help you by connecting you to resources and guiding you in making healthy choices for your kids,’” a message that gained the parents’ trust.

And these warm, wise words helped Rochelle build lasting bonds with parents and their children. “One of the children I served just graduated high school and the mom showed that she remembered me by sending me a picture of her daughter in her cap and gown,” she says. “Recently I ran into another mom and her daughter in a grocery store, and they remembered me, too. The daughter told me that I was her favorite teacher, and she still carried a photo of me in her wallet.”

It was praise that spoke to Rochelle’s gift for making each child feel special in the hubbub of a classroom. “It’s hard to give them individual attention,” she says, “but it can be done. If you’re in the middle of something and a child is calling out to you, you always have to let them know you haven’t forgotten about them. You just need to tell them ‘I’m busy with your friend. I’ll get them settled and then I’ll be right over with you.’”

Of course, some of the children needed more attention than others, especially a three-year-old autistic child who Rochelle served a few years ago. “Wayne was nonverbal and working with him was a challenge for me,” she admits. “But I kept talking to him and encouraged the other children to do so, too. Then finally one day, he said, ‘Pass me that,’”—his first words and ones Rochelle has always remembered. “It was a real breakthrough for him and for me.” And persistence was the key to this success, Rochelle explains. “No matter what challenges you’re facing with a child, you have to try everything you can. You can’t give up.”

And Rochelle showed this same sense of persistence while earning her Child Development Associate® (CDA) Credential™. “I was still at Grace Hill when my best friend told me about the CDA. She got me excited about it, and we took the CDA classes together. It was a lot of work, but it helped that my friend and I did it together. Granted, I was a little anxious when I was observed in the classroom as part of earning my credential. But I told myself this is something I do every day, so I tried not to overthink it.” And all the nervous moments and late nights of study were worth it because Rochelle says she learned a lot. “I really feel the CDA should be the equivalent of an associate degree in ECE.”

Still, it didn’t qualify her for a promotion from assistant teacher. Head Start requires all lead teachers to have a bachelor’s degree, though Rochelle does nearly all the tasks a lead teacher does as she leads the way for young learners to succeed. “I put together lessons plans, meet with parents and do observations just like a lead teacher,” she says. “And I think we should just do away with titles, so parents realize that lead and assistant teachers are both doing much the same job.”

That may well be the case, as Grace Hill acknowledged by making Rochelle an interim lead teacher at one point. And Flance Early Learning Center, where Rochelle now works, has also acknowledged her experience and expertise. Still, Flance, as a Head Start program, must observe the rules, so they’re now supporting Rochelle in going to college. “They want to give me the position I deserve and they’re giving me flexibility and some funding to go to school,” Rochelle says. “But it still isn’t easy, and I have a long way to go. At one point, I fell behind, but I’m caught up. I’m now getting good grades and I’ve learned to study in a more strategic way.”

And she’s managed to carve out a bit of personal time despite the demands of teaching, working at the grocery store and pursuing her studies. On her days off, she sees family and friends, among them some close colleagues from her days at Grace Hill. “There are five or six of us, and a couple of times a month, we have girls’ night,” Rochelle says. “One of us cooks dinner, and we get together to share our experiences in ECE. We talk about what’s worked and what hasn’t worked. We might chat about the challenges we’re having with a parent or a child, and the courses we’re taking to advance in our careers.”

It’s a little support group for folks who don’t get the recognition they deserve. “Early childhood educators are sometimes looked down on,” Rochelle says, “though we’re the ones who get children ready for school. When you look up to all the doctors, lawyers and firefighters out there, you should acknowledge that we’re the ones who lay the foundation for their success.”

Now Rochelle is laying the ground to build her own way ahead by earning her bachelor’s degree. “I enjoy going to school, and it’s worth the effort since it will allow me to be a lead teacher,” she says. And Rochelle looks forward to the extra money she’ll make—and needs—but she puts it in perspective. “Sure, I want to be paid for my worth,” she says. “A raise would fill my pockets a bit more, but my passion for ECE is something dear and true that fills my heart.”


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