October 29, 2018 11:25:00 AM
Mary Pollitz - [email protected]
Sandy Devlin knows a good teacher when she sees one.
As graduate coordinator for special education at Mississippi State University, she helps prepare future teachers for the challenges they will face when they lead their own SPED classrooms.
When Devlin met Stacee Bonner in fall 2011, her new student's fire and passion for the special education field indicated she would have little problem meeting those challenges.
In fact, Bonner's own challenges to become SPED teacher were arduous enough.
Bonner spent seven years at MSU as a custodian, cleaning classrooms and hallways while taking the necessary classes to earn a master's degree in special education and an educational specialist degree in instructional technology.
Now, she's a first-year SPED teacher at Columbus Middle School.
"I pushed her because I knew she could do the job and do it very well," Devlin said. "She was a great custodian, but I could see she had a passion for kids and we don't want to waste that. In special education, we need people like her to nurture children."
Bonner graduated from MSU in 2009 with a bachelor's in educational psychology. She worked as an assistant teacher with West Oktibbeha Elementary School, until budget cuts left her jobless in 2011.
"I had a passion for teaching," Bonner said. "I wanted to have my own class. I knew that I didn't want to have any extra student loans. I saw the opportunity and I was willing to take whatever job, full-time, to go to school. I started applying for jobs, even though I was overqualified."
The custodial job at MSU allowed her to earn her master's for free as an employee benefit. But pursuing her passion came with long hours and hard work.
Bonner woke up at 3 a.m. to prepare for work at MSU each day, leaving her daughter, Zya, with babysitters while logging her eight-hour shifts. After work, she spent her evenings in class -- either on campus or online -- until she earned the last of her degrees in December 2016.
"It was stressful and hard," Bonner said. "It was a lot of work. It took a lot of self-motivation. But if you have a dream, you have to just go for it. Sometimes you have to remove yourself out of the way and just walk out and do things on faith. I did this by the grace of God."
With three degrees, Bonner still worked another year-and-a-half as a custodian waiting for the right teaching job to come along. She finally applied this summer at CMS.
A bright spot in a difficult time
Bonner started with CMS Aug. 1.
Her job offer from CMSD came at a strange and difficult time for Bonner. In early July, Bonner's mother passed away from health complications, but Bonner said getting back into her classroom was a shining moment in an otherwise trying time.
"It's really by the grace of God that everything fell in place," Bonner said. "Since my mom passed, I've been holding on, and my (students), they've helped get me through it. I just love my babies. ... I'm getting to learn my kids. I'm actually able to get on their level."
Though just a first-year SPED teacher, Bonner's knowledge and passion for her work give her the aura of someone far more experienced.
Ellicaya Steels' daughter, Eljanecia, is in Bonner's classroom each day. Eljanecia, who has cerebral palsy, first struggled transitioning to the middle school. Shortly after classes began, she started enjoying school again and would come home each day with stories about her teacher.
Eljanecia has also struggled with reading comprehension, but has seen a steady improvement since the beginning of the school year.
"She can read it but she can't comprehend it," Ellicaya said. "Mrs. Bonner has been working with her on it, and she's doing a lot better. She would skip words, but now she reads 20 minutes a day, and if she thinks she's wrong she'll ask questions. She's had a lot of improvement."
CMS Principal Billie Smith said the success she's seen in Bonner's classroom is rare for a first time SPED teacher.
"She's just determined and hardworking," Smith said. "As the position came available, I just felt she would be the perfect applicant. She is a perfect role model for my students. She's a very valuable asset, not only to Columbus Middle School but to the district."
'Nothing surprises me about Stacee'
How well Bonner is doing, and how quickly she has adjusted to leading her own classroom, comes as no surprise to those who helped her along the way.
"She's exceptional," Devlin said. "She fell in love with it. The end result is she's doing a great job with her children that's really going to impact their future. That doesn't surprise me, not one bit. Nothing surprises me about Stacee. I knew she would do it."
Nekela Macon, Lead SPED teacher at Joe Cook Elementary, first met Bonner at West Oktibbeha Elementary School. While working together, Macon said she kept pushing her friend to go back to school.
Throughout the years, Bonner said Macon served as a mentor, helping her while studying at MSU, transitioning into the classroom and even looking over her lesson plans. But Macon said, by this point, Bonner has exceeded any first- year teacher's expectations.
"I'm just proud of the accomplishments she's made," Macon said. "I hope she continues to prosper throughout her years of teaching. Nothing was going to stop her from achieving what she wanted to achieve."
Being where she is now made all the early mornings, late nights and hard work at MSU well worth it, Bonner said.
"I've been blessed, and it all happened in God's time," she said. "This first year has been such an enjoyment, and my kids know that I believe in them and push them forward."