ACAREER IN the classroom was not what DeEdra Vanzant first imagined. She enjoyed helping, not leading. But a word from a friend majoring in education helped refocus her future path.
“He told me they were looking for more people to go into education. And I told him I couldn’t do that. I’m not really a big talker. But he encouraged me, and I did it. That’s where I started, and I was terrified,” Vanzant said. “But I love it.”
Vanzant began her teaching career with a temporary position at Decherd Elementary her first school year, then taught at Huntland for four years in first, second, and third grades. When it was time for her daughter to start school, a position at Clark Memorial, closer to home, opened to her. For the past 20 years, Clark Memorial has been her home.
Vanzant teaches third-grade science and social studies with love, encouragement, and commitment to the students’ total well-being, all wrapped up in a welcoming smile.
“I want to make sure when my kids come to school, they know first and foremost, they are loved. As long as they know they’re loved, the rest will come. Academics will come. But I just want them to know they’re safe and provide an environment where I try to meet all their needs. I know it’s not always possible, but that’s my goal. I want them to know they can talk to me and are free to express how they feel,” said Vanzant (Mrs. Dee, to her students).
Loving them always includes being sure they’re fed. Vanzant said, “We want to make sure they come to school with their basic needs met, like food, clothing, and even shelter. We feed them breakfast and lunch and send snacks home with them. We worry about them over the weekends. We’re thankful we’re able to send them home with food on Fridays, from the backpack program.”
Vanzant was a quiet child and believes the quiet ones are sometimes unnoticed. Not in her class, no ma’am. “I try to encourage the quiet ones to speak out, always. We have projects, and I’ll have them stand up and share. They don’t want to do it, but they do, and I think that’s just because of the environment. They know it’s okay. Nobody’s going to laugh at them. I’m silly, so I laugh a lot. And I tell them that Mrs. Dee makes mistakes. It’s okay. We just laugh about it together and move on.”
Encouraging them and showing them a broader vision for the possibilities in their futures is a core value.
“I teach at a title school, which means a large percentage of students receive free and reduced lunch. As a woman of color, I want to be an example for all my students but especially my African American students. I was in middle school when I had my first African American teacher, and there weren’t very many of them. When my students look at me I want them to see themselves. I want them to know they can become anything they want, with hard work,” she said.
Vanzant also talks about other career possibilities with her students.
“I want all kids to know they can be anything they want to be. We talk a lot about how one day they’ll be grown and taking care of their families. We start thinking now about what they want to be when they grow up. We talk about engineers, artists, and different careers. We talk about how making money is necessary but not the only important thing. We want them to grow up to be successful adults, whatever that is. We know not everybody’s going to college. Some people are going to work at McDonald’s, but we want them to be the best McDonald’s worker they can be, or Walmart, or wherever they work. We just want them to be successful,” she said.
That’s the heart of the Clark Memorial staff and Vanzant’s other third-grade teachers. Vanzant said, “I work with a great team here at Clark. The third-grade teachers, we all work really well together. The other three have big hearts, just like me, so they’re very concerned about our kids.”
The heart for children is a Vanzant family affair. Her husband, Eric, is the Campora Family Resource Center director and a local youth pastor. Following his father’s footsteps, their son, Jadon, graduated from MTSU in May. He will begin working on his educational specialist degree (ED.S) in the fall, to become a school counselor. Like her mother, their daughter, Erica, is working on her master’s in education and will do her student teaching in January. She currently assists her mother and the other Clark third-grade teachers in the classroom.
The Vanzants are a family dedicated to enriching the lives of the children around them. Whether at home, church, or anywhere they find them, they have something to give them – a hug, a smile, a listening ear, something to eat – whatever they might need.
Mrs. Dee Vanzant may seem quiet, but her heart and smile speak louder than words. GN