Kristy Thomas, a fourth grade English teacher at William Dean Jr. Elementary in Holmes County, smiled at her students as she walked down the rows of desks, handing back their graded vocabulary and spelling tests. One student looked at his marks and put down his exam, while announcing, “I’m just dumb.”
Thomas turned to him. “You made a careless mistake and did not go over your work,” she said.
Her delivery, though firm, avoided coming across as a reprimand. “Don’t call yourself dumb,” she added, before drawing the class’ attention to the projection screen backdropped against a neon orange-colored wall.
As students scrawled down the 10 new spelling words for the week in their notebooks, Thomas launched into a pep talk. She wanted students to consider their grades from the previous week as a floor. She encouraged a few spellers who only recalled two out of 10 words correctly to improve their scores by at least one or two answers on their upcoming test.
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Three out of 10 isn’t where she wants students to be. And it’s not where the state says they should be, but there’s no quick fix for closing the gap between struggling students and high performers.
Some of her students that day were reading above grade level. Others were on track to meet the state’s testing goals for fourth-graders. Another student needed a reminder that sentences start with a capital letter.
Responsible for just shy of 100 students — fourth-graders here are on a block schedule, and they rotate to Thomas’ class in groups — she feels the pressure to meet their individual needs.
“I teach in one of the poorest counties in the state,” Thomas said. “There’s a stigma that our students can’t learn or read.”
Shaking that conclusion becomes harder during the fall when school and district grades are assigned by the Mississippi Department of Education. In 2017, less than one in five students at William Dean Jr. Elementary met the state’s grade level expectations in reading or math.
Last October, the school received an F.
It’s not a score that invites nuance.
The low grade masks the hours of lesson planning and the late nights teachers in this close-knit community spend tailoring classroom activities.
“You can say, ‘they’re an F school. Those children can’t read. Those teachers aren’t teaching — what are they doing?’—but I would love for the test makers to come to our classroom and see that our children are actually learning,” Thomas said.
Visitors shadowing Thomas on this particular day would see students just as eager to raise their hands as they were to talk with their peers about what they did over the weekend; they would see Thomas’ efforts to motivate her children, who she says, “need someone rooting for them.”
Sometimes that means a word of encouragement. More often than not, it’s as simple as offering a smile. She’s known to have one on her face even when lecturing students who have broken classroom rules.
Her class almost missed out on her joy.
Two decades ago, Thomas planned to bring her upbeat nature to the profession of nursing, before pivoting to teaching. She found quick support with her twin sister Krystal, who also decided to study education, and her parents, retired educators, who between them have 60 years of experience serving in the classroom.
“They used to play school at home when they were coming up,” Gail Thomas, said. “I felt pleased that both decided to follow us.”
The Thomas family are natives of Carroll County. At times, their school was close enough that their daughters didn’t have to ride the bus.
Kristy’s dad Willie Thomas likes to say his daughters only had to walk out the front door to become “engulfed in education.”
Gail and Willie aren’t just watching their daughters keep the family tradition alive from the sidelines. Several times a year, they make the 30-minute drive to Kristy’s school and host parties.
For Thanksgiving, they brought turkey and dressing. Willie laughs recalling the response he received when he told Kristy’s class that the menu for their Christmas party would be barbecue-themed with hotdogs.
“They said, ‘Nooo! We want turkey and dressing,” he said, imitating their cries.
Willie and Gail couldn’t resist giving in.
For Thomas, having a support network is critical.
It’s comforting to have family that understands that during the school week, sleeping in means waking up at 5:15 a.m., instead of 4:45.
That passion doesn’t prevent Thomas from becoming tired.
There have been days during her planning break when she turned off the lights and sat down in her room’s reading nook, when she just needed a moment to be still.
‘There are moments where a lesson didn’t go well, or a student doesn’t quite understand a skill you’re teaching, and you wonder, ‘am I doing anything right?’” Thomas said. “Then the next day the student comes in and gets it.”
Her dedication doesn’t go unnoticed.
“She is a teacher that teaches beyond the realm of the four walls of a classroom,” Bridget Wheaton, principal of William Dean Jr. Elementary, said.
William Dean Jr. Elementary opened in 2013, but the school still has a classic small-town feel. Classic, as in don’t trust your GPS, pass the red brick county Human Services building, take a right, ride over two speed bumps and then make a left to reach the school; classic.
That makes it easier for Thomas and other teachers here to connect with their students’ families. Thomas sometimes spends her weekends cheering on students who play basketball or football.
And she commiserates with them on Mondays about their teams’ losses, if need be.
Entering her 10th year of teaching means that Thomas has had the opportunity to see some of her former students graduate from high school and enroll in college. Some of the children she once referred to as future teachers or doctors are now on the path to make that happen.
She’s knows the role she plays in encouraging the dreams of learners today can help shape their futures tomorrow.
It’s why she’s committed to staying amid the Holmes County Consolidated School District’s teacher shortage, that’s resulted in a third of teaching positions here being staffed by substitutes.
“I have 90 little faces looking at me and depending on me to educate them,” Thomas said. “I can’t give up.”
This story was produced with the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization that seeks to hold public officials accountable and empower citizens in their communities.