Passionate. Creative. Resourceful. Driven to Learn. That’s how Lee Ann Kidwell and Jennifer Hurst describe the children they interact with each day as preschool teachers for Day Early Learning. However, those same words are often used to describe great teachers, and they can certainly be used to describe this mother and daughter who have made a career out of educating Indiana’s youngest learners.
As a military wife, Lee Ann often found herself running her household and serving as the primary caregiver for her three young children while her husband was serving in the Navy. During that time, she decided to run a home-based child care so she could teach her children while also providing help to other families.
“I started caring for kids in my home, but once I decided this was a good career for me, I moved on to work in Navy child care centers,” said Lee Ann. “That is where I learned what quality care looks like.” Nearly 95 percent of the Department of Defense’s more than 800 centers are accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children and are considered among the highest quality centers.
When her family moved to Indianapolis, Lee Ann’s knowledge and skills made her a perfect fit for a position at Day Early Learning. “I started working at IU Health Day Early Learning almost 14 years ago, soon after the center opened,” said Lee Ann. “I know what quality care looks like, and I would only work for a place that provided the best care possible for the children it serves.”
Lee Ann’s daughter, Jennifer, volunteered in the Day Early Learning centers as part of her community service projects. After graduating, Jennifer studied dance at Ball State University but she found herself drawn to the centers over college breaks.
“At first, I just needed a job while home from college, so I served as a floating teacher at the centers,” said Jennifer, but she became hooked over time. “I loved being around the kids.” Jennifer began to feel the tug of teaching.
“Our parents are our first teachers,” said Jennifer. “Growing up, I watched my mom teach young kids and I loved how she interacted with the kids, always teaching, yet always learning.”
Jennifer picked up a few college courses in early childhood education while at Ball State. In 2012, she started working at Day Early Learning State Government Center. Since that time, Jennifer got married and had children of her own, three and five year old boys and an eleven-year old step-daughter. Her youngest son attends IU Health Day Early Learning.
Both Lee Ann and Jennifer are driven to be the best teachers possible, which is why they are investing in continuing education. In 2016, Lee Ann graduated with a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education and will complete her master’s certificate in teaching in May of 2018.
“Because of the education I have received, I have a better understanding of brain development in young learners, and that helps me understand just how important my job is,” said Lee Ann. “Having a degree gives me the tools and resources I need to be a better teacher. I am motivated to do my best each day.”
Through a partnership with the Indiana Association for the Education of Young Children, Early Learning Indiana offers a tuition assistance program for full-time teachers through a program called T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood INDIANA. Inspired by her former curriculum director and center director to return to school, the T.E.A.C.H program made degree advancement a reality for Lee Ann. “I don’t think I would have been able to do it otherwise,” said Lee Ann. “It removed the barriers that would have prohibited me from completing my degree.”
Lee Ann encouraged her daughter to finish her degree in early childhood education. “Mom is a never-ending resource. She is so creative and is always giving me ideas,” said Jennifer. “She is always learning; whether she is teaching the class, or participating as a student, she is always acquiring new knowledge that makes her great at her job.”
Jennifer is applying to T.E.A.C.H this spring in hopes of completing her bachelor’s degree in early childhood education within the next two years. Early Learning Indiana provides paid time off for teachers to study and attend class, as well as substitute teacher coverage. Jennifer admits that it will be a big challenge to return to school while working full time and raising a family of her own.
“I definitely could not do this without the paid time off to attend class and complete work.”
Lee Ann has impacted many young lives. Several families come back to the centers to visit Lee Ann. “I see these kids off to a great start and know that they will do great things. But my biggest hope is that we have helped them to develop the social and emotional skills to care for each other – to create a better world,” said Lee Ann. “We are getting them ready for life.”
Lee Ann passed on her passion for teaching to her daughter. “I want the children I teach to keep that drive to learn, to stay passionate, curious and resourceful,” says Jennifer. With teachers that embody those traits, a solid foundation is being laid that will certainly create a better world for our next generation of learners.