Summer school students in a classroom here sat silent with raised hands as De’Asia Sias stood before them talking about “Finding Nemo” and the lesson on persistence hidden in the fishy film.
Sias, a Greenville native and member of the Mississippi Teacher Corps at the University of Mississippi, where she is earning her master’s degree, was there on the first floor of Holly Springs High School where summer sessions were held. She enjoys helping students get caught up during the summer and stay on track.
On this day, Sias, the ever-confident, engaging presence at the front of the room, was using the story in “Finding Nemo,” which is about a clownfish named Marlin who keeps swimming, determined to find his missing son, Nemo.
“Give me a silent, raised hand if you have seen ‘Finding Nemo,'” Sias said. “Good. You’re up on your classics and it is a classic. Dory tells Nemo at one point to, ‘just keep swimming.’ What does that mean? What is she trying to teach us with that statement?”
The class followed along and anxiously, but silently, raised their hands when the answer came to them. Sias had command over the class, and kept them calm and focused on the lesson with ease.
“Just keep pushing in life,” Sias explained to the students. “Just keep swimming. (Dory) is not saying literally jump into the ocean and swim until you can’t anymore.
“She is trying to teach us to just keep pushing in life. That’s what you have to do. That’s the theme.”
She pointed out to the students that in the story, the theme has to be inferred by the reader. Wide-eyed students took in the concept with clear looks of understanding.
Holly Springs History
A glance into Sias’ class is a window into the kind of lessons engaging educators with the Mississippi Teacher Corps have been giving in Holly Springs for the last 16 summers.
The MTC was created in 1989 to meet a teacher shortage in the state and receives most of its funds from the Legislature. The alternate route program prepares college graduates to teach and succeed in secondary, critical-needs schools across Mississippi.
MTC teachers get job placement with full benefits and a salary upon finishing summer training. They also get a master’s degree from the School of Education. The program is designed to prepare them to teach in some of the state’s most challenging middle and high school classrooms.
Joe Sweeney, MTC director, said the work in Holly Springs has been rewarding because he gets to see students earn credit recovery and stay on track for graduation through the summer programs. He was there for the first summer in 2006.
“At that time, it was exciting to see how this was so mutually beneficial,” Sweeney said. “It provides a chance for MTC participants to get teaching experience and work with kids, and the kids can participate in a summer learning experience either for enrichment or credit recovery.”
Early Signs of Success
Sweeney saw its potential then, but the longevity of the program is a pleasant surprise.
“I could tell then that this was something that should continue each year, but didn’t imagine that nearly 16 years later that this would still be happening,” Sweeney said.
The teachers and students have been bolstered by the recent return to the classroom after conducting classes virtually, he said. This year, MTC students held summer classes in person three days a week, and virtually on two days.
The Holly Springs school they set up each year includes a principal, assistant principal and curriculum coach.
This year, 42 MTC teachers went to Holly Springs High School for in-person instruction. Being back in the classroom was a boost, Sweeney said.
“Last year, everything was virtual, so this year it was nice to be back in the building,” he said. “This year we did both virtual and in-person, and that worked well for students and families because they had different options.
“This partnership with Holly Springs and Marshall County is such a win-win, and I am excited about continuing this indefinitely.”
‘We Dreamed Big’
Germain McConnell, executive director of the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, earned an electrical engineering degree from Ole Miss. He joined the MTC and served as its program manager from 2000 to 2003, and was co-director in 2004-11. He served as assistant dean in the School of Education as well.
McConnell recalls that in the early 2000s, Marshall County and Holly Springs schools had a teacher shortage, which limited their ability to offer summer school. MTC leaders wanted to provide its budding teachers more opportunities to teach during their initial summer training. The conversation started from there.
There was a need for teachers who could bring the skills, plus a level of enrichment to the classroom, for students there.
“We knew we could provide the teachers for summer school,” McConnell said. “To make it work for us, we needed to have control over the summer school and what it looked like. Mostly, we desired to help students eligible for credit recovery to master objectives they needed through an extended-year summer school program.
“We also wanted to reinforce what they already knew by exposing them to all the objectives.”
McConnell, who also holds a doctorate in educational leadership from Ole Miss, went on from the MTC to his first classroom in the Tunica County School District, which was taken over by the state in an effort to improve student progress.
He believes the experiences with the MTC were important in his professional development, and he is confident that the enhanced summer training for Teacher Corps participants in Holly Springs has made the training even better for current participants.
“Everyone is different, but I knew I wanted to teach and that teaching was for me,” McConnell said. “The MTC was a great mechanism for me to learn the craft and provided me with the pedagogical skills I needed to excel in the classroom.
“As a leader of the program years later, my focus was on enhancing the training for our beginning teachers even more, and the partnership with Holly Springs and Marshall County has definitely accomplished that goal. ”
McConnell, who looks back as someone with a major hand in the Holly Springs MTC partnership, is proud of what it has become.
“I’m just very happy to have been a part of starting something over 15 years ago and seeing the program still going very strong,” McConnell said. “I am extremely proud and humbled, and I am extremely grateful for the previous MTC faculty/staff, such as Ben Guest and Ann Monroe, and MTC alumni who helped to implement this vision and continue to do so year after year.
“We just dreamed big and we pulled everyone together.”
‘Place Means a Lot to Them’
MTC summer principal Abby Clark has been with the program for seven years. As she walked the halls during the final days of summer school, she said she is always seeing signs of the difference they are making in Holly Springs.
“One of my kids that I taught came by school and he had graduated, and this summer, he is working,” Clark said. “This is why we do this. That was really cool to see. I’m always a better teacher after I go back into my normal classroom after having been here for the summer.
“Everyone is working toward one goal here. I feel really invigorated every time I come back.”
Hunter Taylor, clinical assistant professor of teacher education, received his initial teacher training back in summer 2006 at Holly Springs. He said the Teacher Corps attracts some of the brightest professionals into teaching, but they also become invested and a part of the communities where they work.
“The ones who end up doing the best in the MTC are student-centered, but also, place means a lot to them,” Taylor said. “They are choosing to go to communities that are underserved and under-resourced and they immerse themselves into those communities.”
“They most definitely want to be a part of the community and a part of the district’s team.”
The budding teachers impress and inspire him each day, he said.
“Our teachers are so focused on being the best version of themselves,” Taylor said. “They are already doing some fantastic things in their classes, but they always have a posture of, ‘How can I get better? Will you take a look at this for me?'”
Finding Their Teacher Voices
Down the hall from Sias’ class, Carley Hydrick, who works as an instruction coach of sorts with the program, was telling her students about astronaut Mae C. Jemison, the first Black woman in space, who served on the space shuttle Endeavor in 1992.
“Who are these women?” Hydrick asked of the engaged, eager students. “I need silent, raised hands.”
Hydrick, in her fifth year working with the summer program, teaches chemistry at South Panola High School. She said she has no idea how she would have been able to teach were it not for her first experiences at Holly Springs High School.
“I adore this program,” Hydrick said. “I think they really prepared me to enter my classroom. It’s such an opportunity for growth because when you walk into summer school, you have no idea what’s going on.
“You don’t know who you are or how to teach these kids. By the time you leave, you definitely know.”
The opportunity to jump in and learn is what drew her into the MTC, and it’s why she’s come back voluntarily each summer.
“A lot of alternate route programs don’t give you that experience in the classroom,” Hydrick said. “If it were not for that aspect of the program, my first year would have gone differently. I don’t think I would have gone back, much less be at year five if not for the hard experience.
“I have been done with the program for years, but I keep coming back.”
She said she would advise anyone who is serious about becoming the best teacher they can through an alternate route program to consider the MTC.
“I would not discourage anyone, but you definitely have to know that that’s what you want, to be in charge of the kids, and realize how much work the profession actually is,” Hydrick said. “If it’s not what you want to do, you will quickly get burned out.
“The summer program is so good because it gives you that experience and a taste of what it is going to be like.”
Now, she wants to teach forever, and tries to recruit others into the program, she said.
“I want to be a legacy (at South Panola),” Hydrick said. “I want to be there long enough that people say, ‘That’s Ms. Hydrick. She is always here.’
“I will be here for a long time, if not in the classroom, in education in some capacity. I love this program.”
Hydrick talked at a table with other teachers gathered at Annie’s Home Cooking, a local Southern home cooking establishment. The restaurant has hosted the MTC for lunch on the final day of the summer program for many years running.
Owner Annie Moffitt wishes the MTC could come dine with her every week, she said, as she stood at the cash register in her full restaurant. Over piled-high plates, teachers laughed and talked about their classrooms and the upcoming year.
Moffitt hugged many who came and went through her doors, and milled about.
She stood up and thanked the group for coming, and serenaded them with Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me” to raucous applause. The feeling is more of a family reunion than a large catering exchange for Moffitt. The meal has been a longstanding tradition, and she loves the MTC teachers, she said.
“I love each and every one of you,” Moffitt said. “You don’t know how good it makes me feel to have you here at Annie’s. I’d love to have you at least twice a week.
“Do something to get back at least twice a week. That would keep my doors open.”
Time to Teach
Danielle Haas sat with her plate at Annie’s. She worked in biotech for most of her career and then moved with her husband to Tupelo, where there were few jobs in her field. During the pandemic, she was looking for a career change, and the alternate route program attracted her.
Haas saw that she would get the experience, plus further her education with a master’s degree from Ole Miss. She didn’t know anything about teaching at first, but quickly got her feet wet in Holly Springs.
“I have only been teaching for the last six weeks, but I feel like I’m already able to take on all of the demands of my job,” Haas said. “If you had asked me four weeks ago if I was prepared, I would have said absolutely not. I definitely feel like they’ve prepared me for everything.”
Haas said the MTC has helped her find her voice as a teacher, to develop her classroom persona, which is an important part of learning the craft.
“I had absolutely no idea how to teach anything before in my entire life,” Haas said. “They just did a really good job of breaking everything down for me and showing me the motions of what being a teacher would be like.”
Kathleen Norton moved to Oxford from California’s Bay Area during the pandemic. She worked with AmeriCorps in a seventh-grade classroom in Detroit for a year, which sparked her interest in teaching.
Norton, fresh upon finishing up two months of teaching in the MTC summer program, will teach at Holly Springs High this year. She was assigned to stay and lead her first classroom there and she confidently said that she’s ready. She’s happy about her assignment.
“I feel really lucky,” Norton said. “I had never been to Mississippi before I moved here. I just love it. It’s been a big change, but in a good way.
“This is best teaching program in the country. I’m just so lucky.”
By Michael Newsom