As early as first grade, I knew that I wanted to be a teacher. When my mom had another baby 10 years ago, I interacted with my little sister, teaching her and coaching her through life. I realized that I am most inspired to work with the young ones – birth through second grade. Young kids love school; they love their teachers; they are just happy to be exploring the world. If I can embrace their energy, it’s going to be a great day. So, when I applied to Illinois, I went straight into the Early Childhood Education program in the College of Education.

Through the student teaching assignments, I experienced the full range of my degree program in a hands-on way. I worked in a six-month old classroom, a five-year old classroom, and everything in between! A particularly memorable experience came from working as a teacher’s aid in a first-grade classroom when a student transferred in who did not speak English. He appeared distracted and zoned out all the time – disconnected from the group. But, we discovered that he had knowledge of a second language – Spanish – which happens to be my second language as well. He lit up when he realized we had a special way to communicate. He showed me his passion for learning by bringing book after book and asking me to translate. I was grateful to find this connection and appreciated experiencing the power that teaching and language can have in a young person’s life.

The faculty in our degree program were also very welcoming and empowering. I particularly appreciated the mentoring provided by Professor Stephanie Sanders-Smith. She had such great knowledge of education and made it so easily attainable. She inspired us to absorb that knowledge and apply it. She advocated for us when we had difficulties. She made sure that we were learning… and, completing our student teaching during the COVID pandemic months, we were all learning together – students, faculty, and active teachers!

When I started applying to jobs, a friend recommended that I consider private schools. A light bulb went off! I’m not sure why I hadn’t looked into them before. In my research, I found Hickory Hills Academy, which had such a darling story. A wife and a husband who loved teaching started a classroom out of their own home. Eventually, they built up the school to encompass a couple of buildings and a little farm to provide unique experiences for the kids. As a Lead Preschool Teacher, I guide a class of 26 four-year olds. The best part of my job is showing these kids that they are capable. They are sweet and they want to be helped. But, I show them they can zip up their jacket or put away a game, write a word or read a book. They become so proud and start asking “what else can I do?” It’s great to be with them at the beginning of a learning journey that never stops.

What I’d like to remind students back at Illinois is the same thing I tell my preschool class: You are capable. That is what Illinois taught me. I didn’t know how capable I was – capable of creating my own path when the unthinkable happened, when COVID hit and everything changed at our student teaching sites. We had to figure out how to complete the rest of our assignments. We worked with the Illinois faculty to find and apply our voice, and we discovered we really could inspire positive change.