SANFORD - This wasn't what she expected at all when Mia Chanel Simpson began her first year as a teacher. As she sat in an empty classroom reading stories to her first-graders lined up in tiny boxes on her computer screen, she admitted having a moment or two when she wondered, "Why me?"
But her spirits were quickly buoyed by the joy of watching her children learn, even at a pandemic-prescribed distance, and she remembered why she began this new chapter of her life. Besides, if anyone could deal with the untraditional challenge, it's Simpson. Her story had its own unexpected plot twists.
It's not that teaching is entirely new. For nearly two decades, Simpson taught dance for Lee County Parks and Recreation, and swimming for five of those years, but then she started thinking about making a career change -- as she describes it, "taking the plunge to become a classroom teacher." After all, she loved teaching children in the dance studio and knew what a difference positive adult role models could make for young students from watching her mother run a daycare center and raising three children of her own. "Why not educate children?" she recalls asking herself. "Why not give my passion for learning to the next generation?"
Those questions answered, the next one was this: How can I make it happen? Her husband had made a similar detour years earlier, when he returned to Central Carolina Community College to complete his associate degree, so she followed his lead. Only Simpson knew precisely where she was headed -- into an elementary school classroom -- so she worked backwards, as she describes it, starting with her eventual goal and making sure that every step of her journey moved her closer to teaching.
Simpson gives a lot of credit to TRiO Student Support Services for keeping her on the right path. The federally funded support program at CCCC is designed to help students like Simpson, who is the first generation in her family to attend college, with academic skills required for success and the kind of tangible advice she needed to navigate her nontraditional route. She recalls talking with TRiO SSS Associate Director Dane Peterson when she was selecting math courses for her second year. The course she was planning to take was perfectly good for the associate degree, but not the higher math needed for transfer into a university teacher education program. That one heads-up saved her time, money and plenty of potential frustration.
Peterson appreciates the credit, but says Simpson's success was her own accomplishment -- and an impressive one at that. "For her, going to college was one of many commitments," Peterson says. "As a wife and a mother, she had many responsibilities outside of her studies. Nevertheless, she was always extremely positive and excited to face any new challenge."
Learning to Teach
Her challenge wasn't over when Simpson graduated with the Associate in Arts; getting into the classroom required a bachelor's degree, student teaching and state licensing exams. Early in her first year at CCCC, she took a hard look at her options and narrowed them down to two universities. One offered a hybrid approach, a combination of distance education and in-person classes. The other was taught entirely online. Given her family responsibilities at home, she chose the latter and enrolled at East Carolina University in Partnership Teach.
Created to increase the number of high-quality teachers across the state, Partnership Teach has graduated more than 850 students who begin by taking courses at a North Carolina community college before transferring to ECU to complete their four-year degree in elementary, middle grades or special education.
Simpson chose Partnership Teach primarily because she could take all of her classes online, but that wasn't the only reason. ECU's teacher education program had a wonderful reputation, she says, and everything there is easy to navigate, especially for the first-generation college student. "I didn't know what to do," Simpson recalls. "But they enrolled us in the classes and the path was laid out for me until I graduated -- even all of my testing and my licensure information. From the very first meeting at orientation, everyone I dealt with was just amazing. It was a wonderful experience."
And apparently a good fit. ECU Instructional Consultant Karli Ruscoe was Simpson's advisor in Partnership Teach and clearly remains one of her biggest supporters. "I still remember our first phone conversation vividly, when she shared with me that it was while serving as a dance instructor when she first realized her love for teaching," Ruscoe recalls. "I thought: How completely divine and self-aware." Ruscoe also notes that Simpson received ECU's Ellen Boone Staton Memorial Scholarship, awarded annually to a rising junior or senior studying elementary education. Ironically, that scholarship is funded by someone from her hometown, Sanford resident Wayne Staton Jr., in memory of his late mother who graduated from the university in 1939 when it was East Carolina Teacher's College. Staton has long been an advocate for higher education; he is a generous benefactor for CCCC as well.
No matter how meticulously structured it may be, you've got to wonder how well any online program prepares you for teaching, an intensely personal profession where -- in normal times, at least -- critical life skills are taught in person. Lisa Duffey, principal of J.R. Ingram Elementary where Simpson now works, says her new teacher has been well prepared. Simpson clearly understands what quality teaching and learning is and how to make that happen.
"Despite a nontraditional start to this year, her lesson plans, her virtual live lessons and her willingness to go above and beyond to meet the needs of her students is very impressive," Duffey says about her new first-grade teacher. "I love to watch her in her virtual lessons and how, despite being separated by distance, her love and commitment to her students is evident in all she says and does."
More to the Story
This chapter of Simpson's biography already has taken all sorts of twists and turns -- from the dance studio and swimming pool to community college to the Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education with a concentration in reading and finally into the classroom.
After spending four years of her life sacrificing to get to this triumphant moment, Simpson never expected her first interaction with students would be through a high-speed Internet line and Google Classroom. That unexpected start took a turn for the better when many of her young students eventually returned to class later in the fall. Now, she is in a place where students can see her love for them and teaching -- in person, not only through the electronic boxes everyone has been living with at this particular moment in time.
Still, Simpson has no regrets, nothing but happiness. "My students are absolutely amazing," she says. "I cannot ask for a better group of children. At the end, the situation is not ideal, but we have fun and every day they are happy to learn. They put a smile on my face every day. They bring me so much joy."
Mia Chanel Simpson, a graduate of Central Carolina Community College, is now making a difference in the world as a first-grade teacher.