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Stewart Street’s Harris named Rookie Teacher of the Year

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By Angye Morrison

Kesandra Harris, Gadsden County Rookie Teacher of the Year 2009-10, thought teachers were underappreciated and overworked – and she had no desire to pursue a career in education.

The James A. Shanks High School graduate was pursuing a degree at Florida State University, majoring in psychology, with a minor in special education.

“I had said I would never be a teacher, due to political issues,” she laughed. “But I became a teacher because I found myself in it, not because it was my last resort as a job.”

When Harris began her minor coursework in special education, she was able to marry her love of learning about how people think and the reasoning behind their various behaviors with her love of those with disabilities. She had worked with people with disabilities, a family business for many years, and she also was a substitute teacher at Chattahoochee Elementary, another experience which opened her mind to the educational field.

“I think of that quote by William James, 'Seek out that particular mental attribute which makes you feel most deeply and vitally alive, along with which comes the inner voice which says, 'This is the real me,' and when you have found that attitude, follow it,'” she said. “And this is me. I have found it. I am caring and compassionate. Where else can I have that one on one and be very direct with my students, meet their needs at all times, and make sure they are socially improving and academically inclined? This is me. I said I would never be a teacher. But guess what? I'm a teacher.”

Harris is in her second year of teaching exceptional student education at her own elementary school alma mater, Stewart Street Elementary School, where she teaches a self-contained class of 10 students in third through fifth grades. She began her teaching career at the school as a resource teacher, then moved into ESE. She said she wouldn't mind teaching older students, but she loves the idea of helping lay the learning foundation for younger students.

Harris teaches her students all subjects, but says her greatest concern is helping them develop self esteem and self discipline. She also loves the fact that no two days are the same.

“I asked God for a job where I could be creative; that it would be exciting and that I would never know what the day would bring,” she said. “Each day is a new day. What happened yesterday is gone. If it was negative, we throw it into the trash. If it's positive, we bring it forward.”

Harris said her greatest challenge as a teacher is being an overachiever.

“I have a big heart, and it's hard to accept when my students fail. I beat myself down if they fail or don't get it. But it's like my mother always said, nothing beats a failure but a try,” she said. “I tell my students we can always try again tomorrow.”

She feels her greatest attribute as a teacher is that she provides unconditional love for her students.

“A lot of my students face stereotypes. They haven't had high expectations, and have had low standards. Just because they are here today, it doesn't mean they will be here (in ESE) tomorrow. We can work every day to improve,” the teacher said, adding that she goes into the community to find intervention for her students, she goes to church activities and she allows her instincts as a mother to spill out into her classroom.

“Love goes a long way; caring goes a long way. Sometimes kids need teachers to step outside of the teacher box and let them know they can come to someone who actually cares,” she said. “We have to focus not just on test scores. I want them to succeed in every area of life.”

If she could communicate anything about special education to the general public, Harris said it would be that although it's been on the back burner of the educational system for many years, it's now in the forefront, and it's a very rewarding area in which to work.

“It's requires a lot of patience, but it's not as hard as people think it is. You just have to open yourself up to the kids and their needs,” she said. “It's a passion I have. The kids appreciate the small things. They always have their hands out, always wanting to learn. They will grow on you. I love it, I love it, I love it.”

Harris says her students aren't the only ones learning.

“I have learned so much. I have learned that professional development is a daily process. Teaching has also sharpened my communication skills, and I have learned to deal with all types of people and situations. Teaching has helped me to be a better person all around. It has helped me advance every day, professionally and personally. I have learned to go beyond the call of duty in all areas of my life. And I am always paying attention to children now, more than ever before.

Asked what her students would say about her, Harris laughs.

“They would say, 'Mrs. Harris is nice, but she doesn't play.' They'd probably also say I love and support them. And that I motivate them and have high expectations of them,” she said. “I tell them to bring their A game, because this is an A team. We cannot lower our standards. We cannot expect success to come to us; we have to raise our standards and work toward success. I set the bar high.”

A very family-oriented person, Harris married her husband, Vashaon, in May 2008. While she is working on her master's degree in special education at Florida State, he is working on a nursing degree at Tallahassee Community College. Her daughter, Nyhla Holmes, is 5, while the couple's daughter, Nia Harris, will be 2 in May. The young family is very involved in their church, St. Mary Missionary Baptist Church in the Sawdust Community. Harris enjoys modeling, reading and singing, and she sings in the choir, teaches children's church and works with the youth at St. Mary.

But at the end of the day, no matter how the day went, she says coming home to her family is her peace.

But even on the bad days, Harris continues to love her students and her area of expertise.

“It feels so good to see that your work has paid off,” she said. “When I leave work, I feel good. I can't leave work until my best is better and my better is my best.”