Kindergarten teacher Lori Hanks grew up on a tobacco farm in Rawlings, Virginia, population 456, and learned to drive a tractor by the time she was 10. Travelers on I-85 zoom past Exit 39 with its sign directing them to her hometown of farm land and no stop lights.
“We had to drive 30 minutes to get everywhere. There was nothing convenient except my grandparents. When I was little, my grandparents owned a store, so that's where we did all of our grocery shopping and things like that. It was a little country store, and I used to ride my horse there. I grew up very rural.”
Among those 30-minute destinations was Brunswick Academy, the school Hanks attended from kindergarten through 12th grade. She remembers it as being much like Durham Academy but smaller, with only 32 seniors in her graduating class.
Hanks’ childhood was different than what her students experience here, where supermarkets, malls and schools are nearby and only a traffic jam necessitates a 30-minute drive. But growing up in rural Virginia, Hanks developed a love for school that she believes is important to share with her kindergartners, and tiny Brunswick Academy is where she first knew she wanted to be a teacher.
“My first grade teacher, Linda Tipton, was my inspiration. She would come in at Halloween dressed up as a completely different character, and she would fully take on the role. Probably until about fifth grade, I thought that she was a different person, that Ms. Tipton wasn't there that day, and this new person was here to be our teacher. She just made learning so much fun.”
Hanks expected to attend the teaching program at Virginia’s Longwood College, but her plans went awry when she missed a key application deadline. Her sister was at East Carolina University and Hanks decided to move to Greenville and follow her path.
“Having two kids on out-of-state tuition was a lot for my parents, so I said I'll attend the community college first and then I can get in-state residency.”
Armed with an associate’s degree in early childhood education from Greenville’s Pitt Community College, Hanks graduated cum laude from ECU, majoring in child development and family relations, and earning the outstanding senior award in ECU’s College of Human Ecology.
She taught second grade in Winterville, North Carolina, then moved to Chapel Hill (her husband Nathan’s hometown) and spent four years as lead preschool teacher at Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute.
“Whenever anybody [in college] talked about child development and children and early childhood, Frank Porter Graham was like the mecca.” It was part of both UNC and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro public school system and was actively involved in educational research. The school served all kinds of children, including those with autism and cerebral palsy.
“When I was at Frank Porter Graham, we had an occupational therapist on staff, a speech therapist on staff, it was always an intradisciplinary team. I learned so much from all of those people, working with typically developing children and children with special needs. DA was my first teaching experience since then, and I had such a big break in between with my kids. But coming into a classroom, bringing that knowledge was really interesting and really helpful.”
Hanks was a stay-at-home mom for eight years with Millie (now a DA fifth-grader) and Owen (a DA first-grader). She came to DA in 2018 as a teaching assistant in Preschool Director Christian Hairston-Randleman’s kindergarten class and this year has her own kindergarten classroom with teaching assistant Lloydette Hoof.
“I think it was a little overwhelming at first. But Durham Academy has been a really great place for me, starting off as the TA last year, working to a more co-teaching position throughout the year with Christian, and then feeling really confident and taking over the classroom this year. It felt like a very natural progression.”
Hanks loves the “aha” moments she experiences as a kindergarten teacher.
“When you've been working on phonics for the first part of kindergarten, then you put these books in front of kids and they're able to recognize their sounds or they're able to recognize a pattern in their reading — they look at you and they're like, I'm doing it, I'm reading, and they get so excited.”
Parents often send Hanks videos of their children reading at home. “It just brings me to tears because it's like, this is what it's all about, seeing their confidence grow. And then them identifying as a reader is just really cool.”
But Hanks makes it clear that academics are only one component of what is important about kindergarten.
“I told our parents on parents night that the kids were obviously going to have academic instruction. It is going to be a big part of kindergarten. But we [Hanks and Hoof] are also focused on knowing who they are, who they are as learners, what makes them excited about school, and really to build that foundation. Because if they don't want to come, if they don't like what we're doing, if they don't feel like they're important or if they don't feel like they can come to us, then this is not a good environment. We are really focused on meeting their social-emotional needs at first and building a classroom community.
“You know, they're just 5 and 6. We want to make sure that they feel safe and loved here. That was such a big part of the beginning, and it continues throughout. … This is why you make those connections, and they really do last. And it's a feeling in your heart. It sounds so cliché, but it really is true. It just makes you feel so warm and fuzzy. You know, for us, for these kids, it's a really great feeling.”
Hanks read her students a book about the invisible string that “connects us through love. You can’t see it, but it’s always there… Ms. Hoof and I will always have invisible strings attached to each of you, and no matter where you go, that will always stay with you.”
She wants her kindergartners to “have a sense of independence and understanding of what is expected of them as they move forward, but first and foremost that they feel cared for and loved.”