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Teacher Models Her Students-First Classroom Environment After Belchers

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Kayleigh McAlister stands in the doorway of her seventh-grade classroom every morning to greet her students with a handshake and a smile. She writes encouraging notes for each of them every two weeks to praise their progress, no matter how small. And on their darkest days, when a parent has left the family because of death, divorce or drug addiction, she wipes their tears

Screenshot of McAlister's classroom


and holds their hand and tells them how much she understands – because she does. She has been there.

A middle school whisperer? Maybe. McAlister, who teaches at Canton Middle School in Haywood County, says she's just modeling after Western Carolina University Chancellor David O. Belcher and his wife, Susan. And it's called being present, she said, as the Belchers were. Everywhere, all the time.

"They just made our entire school feel like home for so many individuals," said McAlister, who attended WCU from 2013-16, earning a bachelor of science in education degree from the College of Education and Allied Professions. "So, to bring that sense of community into my classroom has really changed the whole concept of teaching because I feel like I teach students more than just teaching my subject. I really work on prevailing in their future and helping them figure out anything they want to become."

The Belchers' creation of a familial environment and the substantial scholarship support McAlister received were just what she needed when she entered WCU in 2013. She noticed how the Belchers welcomed students, got to know them individually and shook their hands.

McAlister – a first-generation high school and college graduate – was raised by her mother after her parents split when she was in sixth grade at Waynesville Middle School. Her father was abusive and abused drugs, McAlister said. Despite the typical strife of a single-parent household, McAlister's mother told her and her two younger sisters to dream big. "My mom worked multiple jobs, and I saw her struggle, but I also saw her strength," said McAlister, who graduated from Haywood Early College in Clyde. "And she encouraged us to do whatever we wanted to, no matter what that was, to just follow our dreams. I had her endless support every day."

Screenshot of McAlister


McAlister's dream was to become a middle school teacher and, thanks to nearly $9,600 in endowed scholarships and the support of a beloved Waynesville Middle School teacher, she did. McAlister was awarded the Capps Family, Elizabeth Tyson Lofquist, Hattie Strong, Eric Collier Annual, and Adah and Horatio Helder scholarships. "I came from a single-parent family, so to have [student loan debt] was a financial burden that was just lifted off of my mother's shoulders with the scholarships," she said.

Between her scholarships and her work study program, "America Reads/America Counts," which had her tutoring elementary-age children in reading and math, McAlister was able to focus on her studies and participate in academic activities related to her major. She served as secretary and treasurer of the Collegiate Middle Level Association, a professional education organization for college students preparing to become middle level teachers, and participated in several conferences in Ohio, Tennessee and North Carolina. She also participated in the Whee Teach summer learning program and various service projects at WCU.

"Through scholarships, I was able to achieve my dreams and become a teacher. I don't think I would have been able to do that otherwise," McAlister said. "I think we would have struggled financially and that would have been a burden through school. But now I can look back and say, 'look what they did for me.'"

Not only did McAlister succeed at WCU, she thrived, knowing she was where she was supposed to be. She credits Kim Winter, who is now dean of WCU's College of Education and Allied Professions, with changing her life.

"She was the first professor I connected with at Western. Although she wasn't originally from this area, she modeled Dr. Belcher's message and what he speaks to students. She was willing to just sit and talk to me and she was always so encouraging, no matter how big or small our class was," McAlister said.

But, McAlister says it was the Belchers' personal interest in students and WCU's student outreach practices that transformed her personal and professional life, making her a better teacher and, in turn, teaching her how to create more engaged students. "I make sure that every couple of weeks each student gets a shout-out card that says something that they've done well," she said. "This year, I had a student ask me to make her a second one because her dad had passed away and she wanted to leave a copy of it at his grave. That had one of the biggest impacts on me, as a teacher, ever. She had never connected with a teacher before."

Thanks to her scholarships as an undergraduate student, McAlister is now pursuing a master's degree in education at WCU, a move she called a "no brainer" because she had such little debt from undergraduate school. The goal, she said, is to expand her own education and become a better classroom teacher.

"Growing up, I felt like school was a home for me and it was where I felt comfortable and where I felt like I belonged," she said. "To be able to give that back to kids was my passion. I think, sometimes, poor kids who come from a low-income family, like I did, or who don't have a lot, initially get discouraged from going after their dreams. I think education gave me the vessel that I needed to follow my dreams and believe in myself, and I wanted to do that for kids."

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By Melanie Threlkeld McConnell

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