Paying It Forward - KIPP Nashville

Paying It Forward

During sophomore of college at Belmont University, Cherish Woodard found herself without a home. The home she had grown up in with her mom and grandma.

“There was an electrical fire in our attic, which made our house unlivable,” recalls Ms. Woodard, who teaches fifth grade English Language Arts at KIPP Academy Nashville. “We were homeless just like that.”

As a result of the fire, Ms. Woodard and her family – her mom, sister and grandma – all had to split up and stay with various other relatives or friends. She went from living in North Nashville near Jefferson Street, to East Nashville, a community that would now become home. 

“I would be lying if I said that that time wasn’t difficult,” offers Ms. Woodard. “I went from seeing my family every day to every now and then. But the experience did give me a unique perspective on life, and it’s something I draw on while I’m in the classroom.”

For high school, Ms. Woodard attended a magnet school in East Nashville. Through hard work and the help of some key mentors along the way, she secured a scholarship to Belmont University.

“I had an English teacher and my school counselor who were always reaching for me. And you feel that, and then you think, ‘Okay, I can do this’.”

After a few years at college, Ms. Woodard felt like she had found her calling.

“At first I was a business major, but I honestly didn’t like that very much,” she explains. “Then I found social work, and it was a life-changer. Social work not only helped me better understand people in general, it helped me understand my family and our dynamics better. I use that knowledge every day with my students.”

While in college, Ms. Woodard worked three jobs, one of which involved helping Nashville charter schools with enrollment and student recruitment. Her experience – and interactions with families – cultivated a passion for educational equity, and ultimately spurred her to apply to Teach for America (TFA).

And as they say, the rest is history.

“I remember touring KIPP Academy Nashville when I was looking at schools I might teach at, and I was so impressed,” she remembers. “I was eager to work at a place I felt was doing such great work for students.”

The idea of being able to pay her experiences forward in her own community struck a chord.

She adds, “It’s one thing to grow up in Nashville and go to the schools, then it’s another to actually be teaching in them. Every child deserves a fair shot at an equitable education, and I’m proud to be working toward that.”

In the classroom, Ms. Woodard maintains a vibrant energy that clearly keeps her students engaged in the learning process.

On her classroom persona, she says, “I am very much so myself in the classroom, so my students know where I grew up and what I’ve gone through. Students can tell if you’re trying to act like somebody you are not, and they won’t respect you. They can just tell.”

While Ms. Woodard recognizes that academics are vital, she also knows that nurturing students as people with real hopes and dreams is just as important.

She puts it this way, “Above a good education, my students are looking for the adults in their school to pay genuine attention to them and to love them. Once that happens, the learning just comes. To me, teaching is bigger than a test or the data we’re collecting. It’s their lives. You have the opportunity to either make a positive impact or a negative impact”

Ms. Woodard believes in talking to her students realistically about the challenges they face growing up in a complicated world.

“I know what it’s like to make difficult choices and sacrifice for what you want,” she says. “So, I want my students, especially my students of color, to understand what they are facing. I always say, ‘You’ve got to learn to live in the world and then change it’!”

As a first year teacher, Ms. Woodard makes this analogy, “Seed planting is important. As long as the seed continues to get nurtured, it will grow. Although I may not be the one who’s able to continue nurturing the seed, I pray there will be others.”