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When It Comes to Teaching, Mrs. Whitehead was the Exception, Not the Rule

• Kate Wallace


In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week we asked a few staff members to contribute to our #OnTheFly blog series about a specific teacher who inspired them and made a difference in their lives. Continuing our series is Kate Wallace, State Advocacy Director for the Southeast region.

If you grew up in my small hometown of Bartow, FL in the 1960’s, 70’s, 80’s or 90’s and attended public elementary school, chances are you had Mr. or Mrs. Whitehead somewhere along the way. If you didn’t, you knew someone who did.

Together, the Whiteheads became a legendary institution of education in the Bartow community. They endured the challenges of desegregation, busing, budget woes, and maintaining their edge and relevance in the classroom over a span of four decades. In honor of teacher appreciation week, I would like to share the profound impact Mrs. Whitehead had on my life, the extent of which I hardly saw coming the day I set foot in her 5th grade classroom in August of 1995.

Nearly 20 years later, there are imprints of Mrs. Whitehead’s impact all over my life, big and small. She exemplifies all that teachers can mean to their students, everything from academics to matters of the heart.

Thanks to Mrs. Whitehead, I know the three U.S. branches of government, all 50 U.S. states and capitals, and I can still recite all 44 U.S. presidents in order. I remember gazing at a picture of the White House in my textbook, never imagining I would intern there 11 years later.

Thanks to Mrs. Whitehead, I never misspell the word definite. She’s also why I’ve not been guilty of confusing there/their/they’re or your/you’re, just to name a few.  Getting the basics right the first time came in handy 10 years later when I successfully mastered reporting class, a course notorious for weeding out poor writers, at UF’s College of Journalism and Communications.

Thanks to Mrs. Whitehead, I learned fall leaves in the Appalachian Mountains are distinctly beautiful, like nothing I had ever seen before in Florida. Twelve years later, I finally saw those breathtaking leaves for first time during an October road trip through West Virginia. If only Mrs. Whitehead were here with me now, I  had thought.

Mrs. Whitehead gave each child in our classroom, regardless of his or her zip code or family circumstance, the opportunity to succeed by giving each of us individual attention and personalized learning experiences. I was fortunate to have a family who supported me in and outside of the classroom, which seemed to be the exception in my school. Recognizing this, she used it as a platform to instill humility, compassion, gratitude and empathy in me at a young age.

She saw my potential and gifts, and she leveled her expectations accordingly. That meant a B grade in reading was not acceptable, even if I had A’s in every other subject. That meant I was responsible for making new students feel welcome in our class.  That meant going out of my way to befriend peers singled out and picked on by bullies. That meant taking on leadership roles and serving as an example for all the younger students who looked up to me. The younger kids were always watching, even when I least expected it, she would say.

I am blessed to not only call Mrs. Whitehead a former teacher but also a neighbor and a friend. Her desire to make a difference has followed her to retirement, where she volunteers hundreds of hours annually to tutor children in her daughter’s classroom. She is but one of a legion of extraordinary educators to have molded me to into the young lady I am today.  However, she, of all my teachers, is my exception.

Thank you, Mrs. Whitehead!


About the author

Kate Wallace @kstreetfla

Kate serves as the Director of Community Engagement (North Florida) for the Foundation for Florida's Future (AFloridaPromise). Prior to joining AFloridaPromise, Kate served as Legislative Coordinator for The Fiorentino Group, a Florida government affairs firm based in Jacksonville. Previously, Kate served as government affairs assistant for the Washington office of Triadvocates, an Arizona government relations firm, and as staff assistant for the Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., federal government relations office. As a college student, Kate interned for the White House in Vice President Dick Cheney’s Office of Domestic Policy and for former Florida Congressman Adam Putnam’s Capitol Hill office. A central Florida native, Kate graduated from University of Florida in 2007 with a B.S. in Public Relations. Contact Kate at