Candice Fenton-Haynes and President Lee King

“Leap of faith” pays off for Candice Fenton-Haynes, the 2021 Mount Airy City Schools Beginning Teacher of the Year

Candice Fenton-Haynes had an associate degree in Business Management and 15 years of experience in the service industry. She assumed this was the career path she would need to stick with for the rest of her life—even though she’d realized years before that it wasn’t a great fit.  

“I probably knew that I wasn’t meant for it 8 years in, but, you know,” she said. She had a family to support. And after 15 years, was it even possible to start over in a new field? 

“I’ve always really wanted to be a teacher, but the opportunity just didn’t present itself at the time,” she said. “When you’re raising a family and you go to school for a certain thing, those are the expectations that are put on you.” 

Fenton-Haynes decided to return to school to earn her bachelor’s degree in business but needed to take a few more core classes before enrolling in the program. While visiting a local community college to get started, she met Lees-McRae Elementary Education instructor Tonya Fulk, who asked Fenton-Haynes if she’d ever considered education.  

“I said, ‘well, absolutely,’ but I just didn’t think that I could get on that pathway,” Fenton-Haynes recalled. “And she said, ‘oh no, we can get you on that pathway.’” 

The two wrote back and forth for about a month before Fenton-Haynes decided to take a “leap of faith” and enroll in the online Elementary Education program at Lees-McRae.   

Earning her bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education took Fenton-Haynes two and a half years. Except for one semester, when she fell ill and had to pull back, Fenton-Haynes took a full course load while working full time. It was tough to balance work, school, and family life, but Fenton-Haynes and her family knew it would be worth it.  

“I’m not going to say that I didn’t make some sacrifices or my family didn’t make some sacrifices, but they knew it was my goal and they are my biggest cheerleaders—the same way I’m their biggest cheerleader,” she said. “Even when it’s hard and you’re struggling, just keep your eye on the prize and know you’re trying to do better for yourself and your family.”

The online Elementary Education program focuses on preparing future teachers to be flexible, adaptive, and reflective in the classroom. Successful teaching goes beyond following a basic lesson plan—elementary educators should understand the different methods of teaching and know how to apply current teaching best practices.  

“You think you know all about teaching, but there are so many intricate strategies. I didn’t realize the research that goes into being a teacher, and it’s always evolving, always changing, and there’s always something new,” Fenton-Haynes said. “Being a teacher, you’re always learning. I love to learn, so I love my job!” 

Fenton-Haynes currently works as a fifth-grade teacher for Mount Airy City Schools, where she did her internship. She was initially brought in as a teacher’s aide for the Exceptional Children’s Program before hiring restrictions were lifted and she could officially start in her chosen career. In addition to affecting the hiring process, the COVID-19 pandemic created unpredictability while Fenton-Haynes was finishing her degree and during her first year of teaching. These challenges, however, ultimately helped Fenton-Haynes feel closer to her cohort and immediately put some of the strategies she’d learned into action.  

The elementary school where Fenton-Haynes works staggered arrivals and dismissals last year, meaning teachers had less time than normal with the whole class together. Fenton-Haynes was worried about how to both teach everything required by the curriculum and adequately prepare students for middle school the following year. Thanks to thoughtful instruction from her professors, Fenton-Haynes developed creative solutions that helped her cover everything. For example, during a lesson on civil rights, she realized that she could combine both Social Studies and English Language Arts (ELA) by giving the students supplemental informational texts for their compare-and-contrast assignment. They gained the foundational information they needed for their Social Studies curriculum while also developing essential reading skills.  

“My professors gave me the knowledge that the textbook the school gives me is not the only resource I have to teach my class,” she said. “I can make my state standards for Social Studies and teach ELA at the same time by integrating those into one. You don’t immediately think of that, but it’s a huge skill that you need to learn, especially as a first-year teacher.” 

Fenton-Haynes’s fellow school employees took notice of her talents and training—she was named Beginning Teacher of the Year for the whole Mount Airy city school system. She attributes some of that success to the dedication of the online Elementary Education faculty, who support their students even after graduation.  

“I don’t think I could have done that without my professors preparing me so well,” she said. “I have no problem thinking that if I had a lesson plan that I was confused by or wasn’t sure was going to work, I could give it to them for their thoughts. And the answer is never ‘you shouldn’t do that,’ it’s ‘that’s great and I like it, but have you thought about it this way?’ The feedback is always positive but steering you in the right direction, which is behavior that I now model with my students.”  

Fenton-Haynes loved her first year of teaching, saying “Fifth grade is phenomenal.” Over the summer, she helped with a summer school program called Blue Bear Bus, a mobile STEAM learning lab built in a retired bus that can visit students in their own neighborhoods.  

“Bringing that classroom to their home allowed students to learn more and be excited about learning,” she said. “Students were excited to come to the bus and find out what they were doing. I wouldn’t have had those opportunities had Lees-McRae not prepared me so well to go into the workplace.” 

Teaching is Fenton-Haynes’s passion, and both she and her students benefit from her decision to gamble on a new career path. To those considering pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education at Lees-McRae, she says it’s up to the individual to decide what kind of experience they want to have, but that the professors want everyone to succeed.  

“The program is what you put into it,” she said. “The professors are fantastic. If you’re open, I promise they will support you, they will give you grace, they will go above and beyond as long as you’re willing to put in that work and meet them halfway.” 

Over the course of their career, elementary educators make a difference in the lives of hundreds of students. With structured, personalized guidance from Lees-McRae faculty, it’s never too late to get on a new path.   

Learn more about the online Elementary Education program

By Emily WebbFebruary 24, 2022