Whether Cathy East is teaching her kindergarten students to read or she’s driving a school bus full of children, her heart is full and her joy is contagious.
East’s passion for education began by teaching vacation Bible school in her youth. After graduating from Curry High School and having a child of her own, she wanted to learn more about the growth and development of children. She then made her way to Walker College and participated in a child development certificate program that helped her secure a decade-long job at the Walker College Child Development Center.
It wasn’t until East was in her thirties that she earned her bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, and she has been teaching kindergarten at Parrish Elementary School since 2005.
“I think early childhood education is where the magic happens,” East said. “For me, the most wonderful moments are when you see that child that you’ve been trying to help with letters and sounds finally blend that first word together, and that lightbulb goes on when they finally feel that success and know they can do it. It’s wonderful to be a part of that.”
She follows in her mother’s footsteps by being a part of the Parrish Elementary family. Her mother, Madelyn Horsley, was the principal of the school in the 1980s.
East said she shaped her teaching style after her beloved second-grade teacher at Curry Elementary School, Dorothy Atkins, who passed away early last year. She recalls Atkins always being engaging and using life’s random moments as teaching opportunities.
“She just loved us, and that meant that when I came into her classroom I wanted to do my best for her,” East said. “All through the years, I’ve always thought I wanted to be Dorothy Atkins. I really did, and I hope I’ve succeeded. She was an amazing educator.”
East spoke of the challenges educators have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, primarily with finding new ways to keep students engaged. She said “toolkits” were sent home with all kindergarten students in the county, each containing an activity booklet and many manipulatives for hands-on learning that are used on virtual days.
“During this pandemic, we’re learning — all the time — new ways to reach and engage those children,” she said. “It has been a learning experience, and we’re all doing to the best we can.”
Her students not only learn all day in the same room but they also have breakfast, lunch, and a snack in the safe haven of East’s classroom. They only leave for physical education.
East said “brain breaks” have been beneficial to help students release energy and the breaks can include fun exercises or cardio desk drumming, which she says has been a class favorite.
Teachers have been faced with a number of challenges during the pandemic, but East has also had the responsibility of being a bus driver.
She started driving a school bus about eight years ago as a way to earn extra money for her daughter to attend college. East admits that learning to drive a bus was a bit intimidating, but she dedicated an entire summer to learning the skill.
“I had zero prior knowledge,” she said. “I knew nothing about the workings of a school bus. It was hard but well worth it.”
East is one of at least 11 bus drivers for Walker County Schools who also work double duty as teachers.
Bus drivers have had to take on a number of different roles during the pandemic, due to students not needing transportation on virtual learning days. East said she has continued to focus on her role as a teacher when she’s not driving a school bus; however, other bus drivers have been doing projects at their respective schools to stay busy, such as painting or decorating.
East said she can never imagine herself retiring and that being a part of Parrish Elementary School has been a blessing.
“I love this community. It’s a tight-knit community,” she said. “Because of it being a small school, it’s like a family. I’m blessed to work here.”
East smiles brightly when she talks about her students and says she understands how great the responsibility is to help children achieve success but she’s thankful for the opportunity to share in their milestones.
“I tell my students, I make mistakes every day but that’s why pencils come with an eraser, right? You learn from it and you move on, move forward,” she said. “I hope when they come in my class they know I care for them and that I’m excited for their success.”