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Being the Mentor Who I Would Have Looked Up To

06 February 2024

By Ms. Tierra Smith, Kindergarten Teacher at McNair School of Excellence

McNair Teacher

I grew up on Chicago’s West Side, the same part of the city where I now teach. I had many teachers growing up whom I adored, and they adored me as well. I wanted to emulate them, and that desire just grew and grew and grew. It was a spark that became an uncontrollable flame. 

I developed my passion for sharing knowledge, fostering a love of learning, and creating safe spaces for children. My teachers helped me toward a desire to be a bridge for students who look like me and come from where I come from. 

As a kindergarten teacher, I try to be the person I would have looked up to when I was younger. My best teachers showed me that it is okay to make mistakes. They helped me soak up as much information as I could, just like a sponge.

This is my second year as a teacher, and I’ve found that the first half of the year often causes me to question how much my students are learning. Because my students are still very young, the school day can often move in unexpected directions for me to troubleshoot, give students breaks, and support their social-emotional needs. 

I spent some time doubting and second-guessing myself. However, when I looked at my students’ assessment data, I was very encouraged by what I saw. It was clear to me that they were learning and growing just as I had hoped. 

I’m also seeing a lot of social-emotional growth. One reminder that I’ve given students is that it is okay if one of their friends does not want to play with them at all times. I’ve encouraged them to pick another friend to play with or find something else to do. Now, I’m seeing them share that advice back to me. 

To engage my students throughout the year, I use a whole-body approach. This means that we use all of our senses—except for taste. I’m a big kid at heart. Being personable with them allows me to tailor my instruction to their needs. 

One of my goals for the rest of the year is to not compare my current group of students with the students that I had last year. Comparison is the thief of joy. Instead, I’m going to embrace my current students’ unique skills so that I can take them to the next level and prepare them to retain the lessons that they’ve learned from me. 

I’m all about my students’ holistic development. Of course, I want them to grow academically. In particular, I hope that each of them can become confident readers and writers. But I also want them to learn how to be flexible in their thinking. I want them to advocate for their needs. And I ultimately want them to live purposeful lives based on what they are passionate about. 

Living purposefully for me starts with taking steps to avoid burnout. When I am struggling, I think back to the teachers I had. These teachers extended compassion and empathy to me when I was struggling. They were always there to support me, and I want to be there in the same way for my students. 

I have a profound love and care for my kindergarteners, as well as a genuine desire to witness their future success and accomplishments. I want to see them continue growing and developing into amazing individuals, and I hope that what I have shared with them as their teachers sticks with them along the way. 

Ms. Smith’s upbringing in Chicago’s Austin and North Lawndale neighborhoods is what inspired her to serve students in underserved communities. She points to two teachers from her high school in particular, Mr. Taylor and Mr. Wolfe, who showed her what it means to be an impactful educator.

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