DEL CITY — When Jordan Edwards was in Melissa Lightfoot’s sixth-grade math class, she thought her teacher was cheerful, honest, friendly and smart.
“Life changer” is what she calls her now, having retraced her steps in search of that “lightbulb” moment when her path to success became clear and her future began.
“The plans that I’m carrying out now, the plans I have for my future, I made them all in her class,” said Edwards, 20, a college student with plans to study nursing or early childhood education. Without Lightfoot’s help, she said, she never would have graduated from high school.
Lightfoot, 36, who teaches at Kerr Middle School, is the Midwest City-Del City school district’s teacher of the year. The award is a first in her nine-year teaching career.
“I was a very defiant child,” said Edwards, Lightfoot’s former student. “I also have a slight learning disability that requires one-on-one attention. Most teachers don’t have the time for that, but she made time for me. She stuck it out for me.”
The extra time and the confidence Lightfoot had in Edwards helped her pass the class and dominate her weakest subject: math.
Once Edwards could do math, she knew she could do anything, Lightfoot said.
“I became a teacher to give confidence to students who have none,” Lightfoot said.
Sharing the light
There was a time when Lightfoot was one of those students.
“As a child, I struggled with reading,” she said. “I understood the feeling of embarrassment and inadequacy among my peers. I tried to dodge every situation where I was supposed to read out loud. I didn’t have any confidence in my abilities, so I can identify firsthand how it feels to have fear cripple the spirit, have sweaty palms and the feeling of a frog in the throat due to a lack of confidence.”
Lightfoot’s lightbulb moment was courtesy of Tracy Foor, her high school math teacher.
“He would stop what he was doing in between classes to look me in the eye and explain something about which I was unsure,” Lightfoot said. “I shaped and molded my own educational philosophies based on this great teacher.”
The confidence Foor gave to Lightfoot is what Lightfoot hopes to pass on to her students. She says gaining knowledge is only half the battle.
“I believe my greatest contribution in education is providing every student with a learning environment filled with creative lessons that build understanding as well as academic vocabulary while setting high expectations and challenging my students,” she said.
“I have been told by my students that they feel safe, respected, challenged and successful. All of this equals self-confidence, which can do more to help a timid learner than anything.”
Lessons from family
Lightfoot earned an undergraduate degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in educational administration from Southwestern Oklahoma State University.
Though she always knew she wanted to teach, she initially followed her parents’ advice to pursue nursing.
“I was struggling just to pass my nursing classes,” Lightfoot said. “Then one day I was asked to be a substitute Sunday school teacher. I fell in love with teaching, and once I switched majors, I began to excel.”
Her parents were understanding. “My dad just smiled and said he already knew. He said, ‘You always used to play teacher with your sister.’”
In addition to valuing education, her parents believed in following a calling.
Her mother, Nolanda, was a social worker, and her father, Tommy, was a welder for General Motors. The family moved from Indiana to Norman when Lightfoot, her twin sister and their older brother were toddlers.
Family traditions included church on Sunday and a family vacation every summer.
“They wanted us to get out of our comfort zones and see the world. Every vacation was based on learning; they wanted us to learn about other cultures and ways of life. And the underlying theme was always to work hard.”
Lightfoot said the biggest obstacle in her life was herself.
“I had to learn to get out of my own way,” she said. “I felt that because I couldn’t read well, doors that were open to others were shut for me. So I started forcing myself to read out loud. I used every opportunity to embrace my fear head on. I didn’t realize it then, but by fighting myself, I was making myself.”
In a district where 70 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches, Lightfoot knows many of her students face their own struggles outside of school.
“I tell them that I know it hurts sometimes, but we have to turn the channel in our minds. It’s good to feel emotions — but it’s not good to let them linger and cripple you. You have to keep moving and challenging yourself,” she said.
“Life is not about being handed lucky cards; it’s about hard work. It’s good to take risks and see how far you can go when you really try. It will be worth it.”