The THIRD-GRADE TEACHER
BY DONNA CRARY
For LaShawnda McNair, being a third-grade teacher at J.D. Parker Elementary in Stuart involves far more than instructing on how to read, write and do arithmetic. It’s about molding young lives.
“I inspire kids. That’s what teaching is,” she says. “It’s making them believe that they can learn. Half of the battle is getting them to know that you care enough about them, that they can do the work — even when it gets hard.”
While in the classroom, McNair is busy helping her students become successful, responsible citizens. A rewarding part of her job, she points out, is watching their development.
“I get to see them grow from day one — as a person, a reader, a mathematician, a scientist — I get to watch all those things that most people don’t get to see,” she says. “They don’t get to see those aha moments that I witness every day.”
McNair’s first career was in banking, while raising her firstborn, Shannon. Several years later, she became the mother of twin daughters, Shanna and Shawna. The demands of her job along with the expensive costs of day care convinced her to become a stay-at-home mom.
When her daughters started attending school at Jensen Beach Elementary, McNair enjoyed volunteering in their classrooms. It was during this time that her future career came into view.
“I thought, ‘I’m going back to school — this is what I want to do,’” she recalls. “Watching other teachers teach kids, inspiring them, and seeing how much my children loved their teachers and they wanted to be in school. I just knew that this was the path that I wanted to take.”
McNair was particularly inspired by Tina Engel, a former second-grade teacher at Jensen Beach Elementary.
“She was my daughter’s teacher and now is the district reading coach — she’s amazing; the connection that she has with the kids,” she emphasizes. “She’s demanding of them, but they know that it’s coming from a good place. She knows her stuff and teaches it in a fun way.”
McNair also credits her mother for encouraging her early on to pursue teaching along with her husband, Floyd, whose unwavering support allowed her to return to college and earn her degree.
“He has definitely been like a rock through all of this,” she says. “He said, ‘You go back to school, and I’ll work double time to make sure that our family is taken care of.’ Even now, he’ll come in and read to the kids. He’s committed to my career.”
In 2012, McNair graduated with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Florida Atlantic University. The following year, she began teaching third grade at Weatherbee Elementary School in Fort Pierce.
McNair found her first year of teaching challenging. She praises the teachers at Weatherbee who gave her tremendous support which helped make a rough road seem more smooth.
“I would not have survived without them,” she says. “They kind of held my hand through it, and I feel as a new teacher, you need that. You need somebody who will walk you through this process, because you feel like you’re failing every day. I had so many who just kept me going and telling me that I was doing what’s right for these kids.”
As it turns out, the first-year teacher really made the grade in her classroom. In 2014, McNair was voted the New Teacher of the Year by her peers in St. Lucie County.
She taught at Weatherbee for two more years and in 2016 began teaching third grade at J.D. Parker. Known as a school of technology, it focuses on science, technology, engineering and math.
An essential part of the third-grade curriculum at J.D. Parker is reading. McNair teaches a reading workshop that helps students develop foundational skills including comprehension, analyzing text and analyzing characters within the text. She believes in providing a relaxing environment in her classroom because it promotes reading.
“We have cushions, lounge chairs, a bean bag chair — I want them to love reading,” she says, as she points around the classroom. “That is the goal here. We have to create lovers of reading first, before we can ask them to comprehend and analyze.”
To encourage reading, McNair has set up a library in her classroom. Books and other reading materials are at the top of her wish list, when she is asked what she needs for her students.
“Not everybody has a library at home or access to one, so here is where they can get it.’’
McNair wears many hats in her classroom. She’s not only a third-grade teacher, but some days she acts as a nurse, caregiver and nurturer. She also enjoys mentoring her former students on a regular basis. Sometimes they need an adult to talk to, she points out, so they can face the increasing challenges of fourth and fifth grades.
“They’ll come in and check in with me, and we just do a little pep talk. Whenever they’re having a rough day, I remind them that it’s okay to have a bad day. But you have to push through and you can’t be disrespectful.”
McNair attributes the academic success of third graders at J.D Parker to its strong team of teachers. They meet twice a week and collaborate on teaching strategies. In their meetings, they exchange ideas, information, and assist one another, especially if they’re struggling with their lessons.
“I feel as a teacher, you need to have a solid team,” McNair says. “You’ve got to have people around you that support and understand you. Our goal is to have all of our kids succeed — not just one class. It’s never a competition on who’s better. Our goal is to make sure that all 130 students in third grade are successful.”
And when McNair is not instructing or spending time with her own family, she somehow manages to work on her graduate studies. She’s currently pursuing her master’s degree in educational leadership at Florida Atlantic University and plans to complete her internships by this summer.
“Once I get my degree, my hope is to be an assistant principal,” she says. “I hope I can take what I’m doing here with my 20 kids and bring that to a bigger scope. I know it’s going to be a challenge because you not only have all of these students, you have parents and teachers that you’re responsible for. I want to make sure and do a good job. I hope to be hands-on and ideally, I want to be part of every classroom.”
Until McNair reaches that milestone, she is savoring her time in the classroom. Teaching is her calling, where she can stimulate children’s minds, watch them advance and make a lasting difference.
“I feel like this is what I’m meant to do,” she reflects. “I feel like this is my little gift to the world. I can give these kids something that I’m hoping they will take with them for the rest of their lives. I’m hoping they’ll know me more than just their third-grade teacher. I want them to know that they’re amazing, no matter where they’re at.”
Lives in: Martin County
School: J.D. Parker Elementary
Family: Husband, Floyd; daughters, Shannon, 20; Shanna and Shawna, 15
Education: Associate degree in finance from St. John’s University; bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Florida Atlantic University; currently pursuing a master’s degree in educational leadership from Florida Atlantic University
Background: Born in Sewickley, Pa., and at an early age moved to Paramus, N.J., where she grew up; worked in banking for Trust Company Bank of New Jersey before becoming a stay-at-home mother. She moved to the Treasure Coast in 2003.
How I got into teaching: “I never thought I’d become a teacher. But then I had children and I would volunteer in their classrooms. I was amazed at what their teachers were doing with these kids. I was a stay-at-home mom at the time and thought, ‘I’m going back to school.’”
What I like best about teaching: “It’s an adventure every day.”
Something my students probably don’t know about me: “l love Broadway musicals and I have seen The Lion King on Broadway, three times, and would absolutely watch it again.”