LeighAnne Cheeseman, Flagler College, c/o 2009, Elementary Education (K-6) with endorsements in Reading (K-12) and ESOL (K-12)
LeighAnne Cheeseman currently works with the Mississippi Department of Education as Assistant State Literacy/EL & LETRS Coordinator. In this role she supports the Department’s literacy initiatives across the state, assisting educators as they learn and implement best practices to improve literacy outcomes for all students. While she currently works with adults, LeighAnne’s first passion is teaching the primary grades - especially Kindergarten. In her work LeighAnne has had multiple opportunities to teach on-camera, through projects such as the MDE’s “Literacy Focus of the Month: In Action” and the “EL Lit Tips of the Month” series; through these and other initiatives she has had the opportunity to return to her teaching roots. LeighAnne believes that literacy is a social right, and works to ensure all Mississippi students receive high-quality, equitable instruction. LeighAnne is the mom of two, and is married to Taylor. She is originally from Sanford, Florida, and graduated from Flagler College in 2009 with her degree in Elementary Education (K-6).
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
I have several accomplishments I am very proud of, both as a classroom teacher and as a Literacy Coach. One in particular was from my first year as a coach. Our state had just initiated their third grade reading assessment. I was assigned to a school in January, and as expected, the principal was very worried about the test. At my introductory meeting she said to me, “You are the literacy expert here. Do what you need to do.” Honestly, I did not feel like a literacy expert, I had only been a coach for a few short months. But, she told the teachers, “Whatever she says, we are going to do it.” That first year, we had about three quarters of our third graders meet the bar to promote to fourth grade. The next year, however, we had every single third grader promote to fourth grade. That was so huge; it was such a big, overwhelming feeling to see the teachers and students I worked with say, “Yes, we are going to do this,” and then trust me to help get them to their goal, and then to finally see those students and their teachers succeed. There was such an overwhelming sense of responsibility and urgency, because I did not just have my classroom of students to encourage and motivate and teach, I had an entire school’s worth of students who I now was responsible for. That school became such a family to me; they even gifted me with a school-logo windbreaker that year, so I knew the feeling was mutual!
I am also very proud of the work that I do with English Learners. At Flagler, it was a requirement that we graduate from the Ed. Department ESOL endorsed. When I moved to Mississippi, I learned that many of my colleagues were not sure how to support their English Learner (EL) students. As a state, Mississippi has had a 1000% increase in our EL population in the past ten years, and our numbers continue to grow exponentially. When I came to work for the Department, my bosses saw that I had an EL endorsement and I was quickly put to work to support teachers across the state in that capacity. In my role as EL Coordinator, I have helped develop state guidelines for teaching and supporting English Learners. I have filmed instructional lessons as models for teachers who have English Learner students but do not know instructional strategies to support them. When I started this work, there were only two people in the entire Department who supported teachers of ELs; now we have four, but only two of us have direct-interactions with teachers to offer professional development or one-on-one support. I love having the opportunity to sit with my colleague and say, “Okay, what are teachers asking for? How can we do this?” With that, we have been able to develop protocols which are used across the state, and are even being shared nationally. I was recently on a call with educators from D.C. to discuss our EL Learning Walk protocols and how my colleague and I use them with administrators to identify targeted next steps for support and professional development. It has been really powerful to see EL data in our state improve, and know I have played a small part in that.
Who was your favorite professor at Flagler and how did they prepare you for your career in Education?
My favorite professor at Flagler was also my mentor in the Education Department, Dr. Kathleen Eide. I loved that her classes were tough and she gave off a strict vibe, but then would turn around and invite a few students each semester over to her apartment to teach them how to quilt while “Wheel of Fortune” played in the background. The dichotomy was amazing.
From both her classroom instruction and her modeling, I learned so much about what a good educator should be. She taught me that a good educator stays up-to-date with best practices and strategies, teaches deep and to high expectations, but that first and foremost that care for their students as people. My senior year I watched her sit in the computer lab with another student whose computer project had crashed the day before it was due. This project had taken us an entire semester to build, and Dr. Eide sat beside her and helped her rebuild it overnight. Despite what the rumors said about her being the toughest teacher in the Department, I believe she had the biggest heart when it came to her students.
What advice do you have for current students and recent grads?
For current students, my advice is to take advantage of what a Flagler education will give you. When I was at Flagler, no other school in the state was requiring teacher-graduate candidates to also be endorsed in Reading and ESOL. I have teacher friends from other schools who never took a course on tests and measurements, or who never learned how to incorporate the arts into their instruction. I have colleagues who never stepped foot into an elementary classroom until their senior internships. Flagler allows students so many opportunities to truly experience not just the field, but because the professors stay on top of what is new in the field, students are given the capacity to fearlessly embrace “What’s next?”
For recent grads, I would encourage you to network with other alumni! Being a Saint is being a part of a large family; I love looking at the alumni map and seeing that there are other Flagler teachers in Mississippi, because it creates a sense of home in my adopted state. It makes me proud to be a Saint when I read the magazine and see the impact we as a collective unit have across not only our country but the world, and in such diverse fields. Tap into that, and use the connections mercilessly. Also, rely on the fact that you are leaving a special place that has equipped you to make a positive impact on the world.