While Thomas Richardson has just completed his fourth year of teaching, he still sees himself as the student.
In addition to teaching creative writing and public speaking at New Hope High School, he also teaches pre-advanced placement English II to sophomores and AP literature and composition to seniors.
Every day is a new adventure in the classroom. "It may sound strange, but being a perpetual student is the best part about being a teacher," he said.
"When we discuss literature—themes of short stories, novels and plays, or how we have come to interpretive decisions with a poem—no matter how many times I've read the text I am picking up new perspectives every day."
Richardson is able to write alongside his students and they help each hone their skills. "I am the authority in the room, but that does not mean I have to dictate everyone's cognitive or artistic experiences; I just keep our train on the tracks while we sort through big ideas and our communicative raft."
It was just a few years ago that Richardson's life was on another course. As a student at Millsaps College, Richardson majored in religious studies with a minor in history. He later earned a master of theological studies degree from Vanderbilt University.
"I like to tell people that while at Vanderbilt Divinity School, I had a crisis of conscience," he said. "I was full steam ahead toward a doctorate in religion, comparative literature, or something of that sort, but I wasn't really sure why.
"Those topics were interesting to me and I was pretty good at my coursework and research, but something didn't feel right," he added. "All of my classmates at Vanderbilt Divinity were having these 'call' moments about ministry, non-profit work…, and I was feeling selfish by comparison; I wanted to discern my 'calling.'"
Through introspection and the realization of opportunities afforded to him through academics, specifically in Mississippi, Richardson knew he had to go back home.
"I knew I wanted to teach in Mississippi—a place with both great potential and great need—so I started looking at programs at the state's major universities," he said.
There wasn't much time to make a decision which led Richardson back to his days as a youth on The W's campus.
"The W helped raise me. I went to Demonstration School, summer camps, Governor's School and the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science. I was familiar with the dynamic possibilities here," he said.
Richardson made the decision to get his master of arts in teaching as an alternate route for secondary licensure in Mississippi.
He said The W's program provided a mix of theory and practicality. Richardson was expected to teach while taking classes.
"My professors provided me with not only the researched-based foundation for best practices, but they were also peeking in on my classroom and helping me develop lessons suited for the types of learners I had," he said. "I was in a trying position my first year of teaching—five different `preps' at a tiny rural high school—so I leaned on people like Dr. [Barbara] Moore, Dr. [Royal] Toy and Dr. [Monica] Riley for direction. They were teachers, mentors and psychiatrists that year."
Teaching is what Thomas Cousin always wanted to do; however he decided to join the military first.
The junior high school teacher at Tupelo Middle School joined the National Guard in the 11th grade and then later joined the Army.
"I enjoyed my time in the military, but I had to leave the Army for family reasons," he explained, noting that most of his time was spent in Georgia.
With more than 16 years of experience under his belt, the Fulton resident decided to exit the military and enter the classroom.
"Well, when I got out of the Army, I started to look at the area schools in order to see which one would be the best fit for me," he said. "While comparing the schools, I saw how much respect that MUW's education program had so I decided to visit the campus and from there I knew that was the place that I wanted to be."
Cousin said The W prepared him well for his new career. "Professors at The W taught me everything from making lesson plans, resumes and how to present oneself in an interview. I was placed in situations that allowed me to find a job very quickly."
He has just wrapped up his first year as a seventh grade science teacher at Tupelo Middle School.
"Working with the students and seeing how excited they get when they realize that they finally grasp what is being taught," he said. "When that happens, they gain confidence and become more willing to participate in future activities."
Team of educators
Matt Keith has been around teaching most of his life and knew that he wanted to be a teacher at the age of 10.
His mother taught high school math for 35 years in Mooreville and still teaches college algebra, he explained.
Keith, who coached football at New Hope School for seven years, said his mother was an amazing role model because she highlighted the importance of focusing on the educational and social enhancement of each child.
"I witnessed current and former students approach her for years with stories of things that had happened while they were in her class, and it opened my eyes to the impact that teachers can have on shaping the whole person," he said.
Prior to earning his master's, Keith was sure that he wanted to be a head football coach.
"However, the decision to pursue an administrative job now instead of later was fueled by the love I had of the intern experience that The W provided me within the New Hope campus.
"For 18 months I was allowed to work hand in hand with great administrators at both New Hope Middle School and New Hope High School," Keith explained, noting the confidence he gained through that experience to become an administrator.
He credits principals and assistant principals Sam Allison, Matt Smith, Kelly Brown, Stephanie Jones and Sammy Sullivan for his success.
As part of his preparation, Keith chose The W's educational leadership program to help him create personal and professional relationships. "I was attracted to the graduate program at The W because of the personal face-to-face education that it offered."
The outcome ended up being more than what he expected with his five-member cohort becoming an extension of his family. "We were continuously leaning on each other's strengths to meet deadlines and produce the most effective product that we could for our professors."
He said his professors, including Dr. Sue Jolly-Smith, Dr. Bob Fuller, Dr. Shelley Bock and Dr. Monica Riley, were a perfect example of what educational leaders should be. "Together they taught us to be confident, meticulous and ethical leaders."
And speaking of family, Keith's wife, Beth Keith, is also in the education field. She is completing her third year at Columbus High School, where she teaches technology. Initially she was the school's career center director until she finished her master's in teaching from The W.
"For me, teaching has always been a career favorite of mine since elementary school," she said.
As a student, Beth Keith earned her degree in business marketing from The W and then went on to work as a sales account executive for an office, computer and school supply company.
"When I would visit the schools and see teachers who taught me and brought a smile to my face, I realized that I was missing out on something that I truly wanted to do—teach," she said. "So, when I went back to The W to complete my master's in business and technology education. With having my background in business, being able to teach it was a dream come true."
While the Keiths work in different areas of education, both agree that the people they work with make their jobs special. Beth Keith said being a positive role model and encouraging students is the best part of being a teacher.
"If I did not have the students to teach and help grow every day, I would not have a job. To be the one who to help mold and shape their lives to follow a positive pathway, is far better than any other job in the world."