Three things you probably didn’t know about Old Bonhomme Kindergarten teacher, Caroline McGee: 1.) She studied Graphic Design at Mizzou. 2.) Early in her career, she sold Promethean Interactive Displays to school districts all across Louisiana. 3.) If she had her druthers (and a fairly potent magic wand) she’d be a Zookeeper, or at least she’d have a pretty serious 4-legged private menagerie. And when you think about it, all of this makes perfect sense. Don't think so? Bear with me. I think I can make the case.
Making Kindergarten Magic
By Craig Williams
By Craig Williams
Graphic designers are, at their core, problem solvers. They pull disparate ideas into submission through font-selection, composition, color, shape, and a thousand competing signals coursing across the synaptic void. That sounds a little like a Kindergarten teacher to me. Salespeople — particularly those in technical sales — are confident communications specialists imbued with a kind of fearlessness that enables them to see through the noise to the heart of the problem, and to bring, often, unexpected solutions. Hello… Kindergarten teacher! Zoo keepers… amiright? Seriously, do I have to beat this analogous drum any harder? These wonderfully distinct aspects of Caroline’s personality were always there in her toolbox, just waiting to be called up and concentrated in her role as a teacher and, more specifically, as a truly remarkable Kindergarten teacher.
Growing-up the daughter and granddaughter of educators, it must have felt almost foretold that she, Caroline, would become an educator herself. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, despite her mother’s 20-year tenure as a 3rd and 5th Grade teacher at Old Bonhomme, she was determined not to become a teacher. But, upon examination of her first two years as a graphic design major at Mizzou, it just wasn't for her; not a fit. She peeled-up the lid on the graphic design industry and found a disappointedly cut-throat business with equally talented prospective digital tablet jockeys all chasing a pretty marginal dollar. She also discovered something important about herself on this 2-year journey in Columbia — she didn't love the big school vibe.
Her parents took another stab, telling her, “You’re so good with children, you really should consider education.” Caroline was in the midst of her Godfather III, Michael Corleone moment, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!” And so they had. But, before she formalized her acquiescence to this path her mother had taken, as well as her mother before her, in true 'watch this!' Caroline fashion, she brushed-up on her Spanish, packed her bags, and headed to Chile for 5-weeks of mission work. In her sojourn there, which she playfully refers to as her mid-life crisis, she helped build three homes, worked in a village elementary school, and led supply-laden oxen across Chile's fertile alluvial fields. Thirty-five days to wash graphic design and the big-school vibe of Mizzou from her system. But it was just the ticket That Fall, she transferred to Webster and changed her degreed track to Education.
And here, dear reader, we could easily jump to the happy ending of Caroline's arrival at Old Bonhomme to teach our precocious kindergartners, saving you a good five or six hundred words but, hey, where’s the fun in that?
Life, with its oft-times circuitous path, took Caroline and her husband, Ricky, to South Louisiana, just a fan boat ride or two from New Orleans, where he was recruited to an agribusiness position, and where she would begin her teaching career. But after a series of single-year, contractual dead-ends, Caroline decided to take a break from the classroom and, instead, took a role with the education technology company, Promethean, purveyors of one of the hottest classroom tools at the time — the interactive display, more commonly and generically known as the ‘smart board.’ She put tens of thousands of road-warrior miles on her well-worn Toyota Camry over the next two years, plying her technical sales mojo up, down, and across the delta region until a pair of new developments — twin boys, Bradley and Emerson — forced her to re-examine everything.
During her Promethean days, she’d met a principal who’d been hired to head-up a brand new school that happened to need both a 4th grade teacher AND someone to help its faculty make the most of their own Promethean tech. Caroline was hired; her time on the road was replaced with proximity to home, and the new school got a combo-teacher-tech-rockstar. That’s called a win-win-win. By the time the boys were approaching their first birthday, Ricky was able to swing a transfer to St. Louis, and, thus, the stars for Caroline’s closure of the Old Bonhomme loop were coming into alignment. With a 2-year stopover at Rossman, teaching science, and a 1-year stint at Reed school, helping out as a teacher's assistant at the Kindergarten level, Caroline fell in love with the Kindergarten culture and its eager young learners. That summer, she applied for one of two open spots on the OB Kindergarten roster and was hired for the 2015 school year.
She is in her 7th year with Old Bonhomme and her 14th year as an educator, overall. If you know Caroline McGee — Mrs. McGee — you already know of her considerable charms, her good humor, her love for children, and her masterful work as a professional educator. But there is so much more to her than meets the eye. She is in possession of extraordinary empathy and it is clear to see how much she both understands and prizes the nature of that bond between teacher and student — and their families. “Priceless,” she says, when I ask her how much that connection matters to strong student outcomes. Drawing on her own life, sometimes managing less-than-perfect circumstances, what she most hopes to instill in her young learners is that they have what it takes to get through anything, that they will overcome. She tells me with her most serious, squinting teacher’s eyes, “I want to feed them that confidence at the earliest possible moment. There is nothing that they cannot achieve, if they put their minds to it. I want them to know that.”
As she’s telling me about the importance of positive messaging for students, I wonder what sort of advice she might give her younger self. “Oh,” she tells me, “If I were sitting across this table from my 16-year-old self, I’d tell that girl who so desperately lacked self-esteem to care less what others think and focus more on who you are. Treasure the quality in authenticity.” About that time, 5-year-old daughter Lucy bounces into range of our conversation and drags the heavy-legged chair backwards, scraping loudly across the concrete patio, implicitly demanding to be seen. Like magic, Caroline satisfies Lucy’s demand without missing a beat in our conversation. A real Kindergarten Pro move.
Maybe it was the twins. Maybe it was Reed. Maybe it was the variety of students, the push, pull, or tug of schools and geography that brought her back, full circle, to the school where, as a youngster, she’d spent late summers with her mother as she’d decorate her own classroom for incoming young learners. But she’s here now, and our kids are better for it. As a matter of fact, all of us are better for it. She tells me that her kids are so honest with her and that she hopes that never changes. They’re lucky kids, and I think to myself as we walk through the gate from the backyard, how rich their stories will be simply because they got to have Mrs. McGee, Kindergarten teacher extraordinaire, as their mom.