Thank you to Patti Permenter at PREPS in Mississippi for connecting us with their Rural Teacher of the Year award recipients. In addition to being an affiliate state of the National Rural Education Association, Mississippi is included in our Black Belt Regional Hub headed up by the University of West Alabama.
The road one travels in life is often filled with sharp turns and scenic detours, and a rural teacher’s route into the education field can be just as meandering. Jamesha Keithley, a stellar rural teacher, shared her story with us about her journey to become a rural science teacher in Leland, Mississippi.
For Jamesha, the road into rural teaching began close to home. She now teaches in the school her mother grew up in, but that wasn’t always the plan. Although from the start Jamesha was determined to graduate high school and college as an example to those around her, she actually began her journey with the goal of becoming a doctor. But she adjusted her course of study into teaching, another in-demand and highly skilled profession, after reflecting on the liberating empowerment that education can provide as a career.
“I'm originally from Greenville, Mississippi, and I graduated from Greenville High School. I'm the youngest of five children, so I'm pretty much the baby, but also the one that they're looking up to because most of my siblings did go to school but they didn't graduate, and my mom never completed high school. So, of course education is my key to success. That's why I'm so passionate about it and [why] I constantly push it on my kids. I knew I had to finish college because I have a niece and nephews. I'm currently not a mother, but I know I have people looking up to me, so I was like, ‘Okay, I don't want to continue what others around me did.’ So I had to graduate college and high school.”
Coming from a rural area herself, Jamesha knew firsthand the challenges of being a teacher, but it was her determination to be an example for her niece and nephews that spurred her to explore the profession. Through teaching, Jamesha channels her passion for service and building community into the classroom:
“Teaching was pretty much my last [choice], because I was in a rural school and I was like, ‘I'm seeing what these teachers are going through, so I know this is not a profession for me.’ I realized I wanted to become a teacher because of my niece. She kind of forced it on me! She used to come home and say, ‘I need help with my homework,’ every day. So I kind of went into this profession for my niece, honestly. God led me here and I do not have any regrets in the world.”
“Of course education is my key to success. That's why I'm so passionate about it and I constantly push it on my kids.”
With her new direction set, Jamesha finished school and began teaching 8th grade science at Leland Middle School. Now going into her fourth year, she has tried to make sure her students receive the very best, and ensuring student autonomy, creativity, and innovation in the classroom is at the core of her approach to education:
“As a rural teacher, I don't let my surroundings define me....We're going to have fun even if we have to go outside and just go look at the grass. I'm not the kind of teacher that holds kids within four walls because I want them to get out and explore and feel independent and feel that they can explore and do things on their own without me because I won't always be there around them.”
One place Jamesha opens the gates for more student engagement and leadership is in her plate tectonics lesson–her favorite to teach. She shares that students enjoy the opportunity to take charge of their own learning, especially using the environment as a tool:
“I love, love, love plate tectonics because it gives them a sense of creativity. They are able to move plates and pick up anything around the classroom to move it and show how plates underneath the earth move. During plate tectonics, we'll go outside - it's a lot of just soil back there - and we talk about landforms and how plates underneath the earth cause those major landforms, like subduction or mountains. I will get a group of kids and have them play as the teacher and show me some examples using soil or plants, building up those mountains or plates and how they move. They enjoy that a whole lot because it gives them that sense of independence.”
“I'm not the kind of teacher that holds kids within four walls because I want them to get out and explore and feel independent and feel that they can explore and do things on their own without me.”
Ms. Keithley’s emphasis on giving kids space in the classroom is a way for them to cultivate their own sense of identity, too:
“They're seeing so much because of social media. It kind of tells them who they are before they find out who they are. Giving them that sense of freedom and independence would [help them] know who they are. This age group is so easy to influence, so I want them to just find themselves, find out what they like, what they don't like, and just be okay with who they are."
Jamesha is still in the early years of her career, but already she feels that focusing on students is what defines teacher leadership in her daily life:
“I still feel like I have some learning to do, but I am on the way there. I always put the students first. You have to understand the role of students first, and make sure that those kids feel comfortable and understand the mission and the goals and values of a school district. Yes, there's some things that we may not agree with, but your mission is to make sure that you're teaching those kids what they need to be taught.”
However, Ms. Keithley underscores that a teacher’s role in the classroom is only one part of the equation. Engaging parents, building relationships with them, and even sharing knowledge and learning with the community are key parts of her work as well:
“As we are learning to improve the community around us, we need to share that same information with parents. Building a relationship with my parents, that is number one for me and has been the roots of my success, and letting the parents know that they do have a say--letting them know that they do have a voice within the school community, asking them for their opinion and help, and letting them take that role in leadership as well--builds positivity in that community.”
Ms. Keithley is the embodiment of RSC's mission to strengthen the bonds between rural schools and communities. Teachers like Jamesha who are vibrant community leaders, bring such joy and energy to their classrooms and beyond.
“I always put the students first. You have to understand the role of students first and make sure that those kids feel comfortable.”
For her work to ensure everyone’s voices are involved in the school community, Ms. Keithley was honored as the Rural Teacher of the Year for her Congressional District by Mississippi’s Program of Research and Evaluation for Public Schools (PREPS), an affiliate of the National Rural Education Association. While Jamesha has been humbled by the experience, she reflects earnestly that what she does is what all great teachers would do:
“Whether it's me or someone else, hats off because teaching it is a work of art. Sometimes you have good days, and you're gonna have your bad days, but to me teaching does not feel like work. I just get up and I'm looking forward to getting up. Before teaching, I was not a morning person, but now I’m looking forward to work. It's not even work, it's just my passion.”
“My name is Jamesha Keithley and I am a rural teacher.”
We are grateful to Jamesha for sharing her story with us about cultivating student autonomy in her classroom. If you would like to share 30 minutes of your time for an interview, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. The I Am A Rural Teacher campaign is a collaborative effort with the National Rural Education Association and made possible through a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
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