Amanda Whitaker's long-awaited goal.
AmandaAmanda Whitaker always wanted to be a teacher.

It’s a dream that has become a reality, as Whitaker is a brand-new teacher at Sunnyside Intermediate School this year. But it was not a given; Whitaker had to work hard for nearly 20 years to finally achieve this goal.

Growing up, she knew she wanted to work with children, to help them and inspire them in a classroom. This was her dream.

But, as can happen, life threw a couple of curveballs her way, and any career goals she might have had were sidelined.

A Lafayette native, Whitaker attended Washington Elementary, Sunnyside and Jefferson High School. She was on track to graduate when her education was interrupted by teenage pregnancy.

Whitaker tried to stay in school; a good student, she said her JHS teachers tried to help her stay on track. But overwhelmed with the late nights and exhaustion that come with caring for an infant, she decided she just could not handle it; her education ended in the tenth grade. By age 19, she was the mother of three, and so consumed with child-rearing that any thoughts of furthering her education were the last thing on her mind.

But when her eldest child was 5, she decided it was time to earn her GED. And then, in 2013, as her children were all in school, she went back to work, working a few hours each day in the cafeteria at Sunnyside.

Whitaker saw every child in the school in her role. And she began to see that, even in small ways, perhaps she could make a difference in their lives.

“I really loved the connection with the kids,” she says. “I began to wonder, what kind of connection could I make if I were in the classroom?”

Whitaker decided she needed to take on a bigger role, so she sought to become a paraprofessional and work in the classroom. She did not have a bachelor’s degree, so she took classes through the Lafayette Adult Resource Academy in order to obtain the required certification. And, as she was a good student, she passed the certification exam and went to work in the classroom at Sunnyside, working with students with emotional disabilities, a job she held for eight years. 

And working in that environment, in a classroom with students, her dreams were reignited.

“As soon as I started there, I knew that’s where I was supposed to be,” she said.

Whitaker felt – and still feels – a passion for helping these children. These students are sometimes seen as “problem” kids, but Whitaker never saw them that way.

“Getting students that other people think are ‘bad’ kids,” she says. “We had expectations in place. Because that’s what they needed to succeed.”

And in time, Whitaker began to think. Her long-ago dream, that lofty goal of becoming a teacher herself? Maybe it was not so unreachable. With the support of Sunnyside staff, she found it in herself to seek out an online college program that she could manage along with work and her family.

It wasn’t always easy, she said. Whitaker did not have a traditional high school experience, so there was some additional learning along the way. With work and family, she was balancing multiple roles. She started out with an old computer, but was able to upgrade to a newer laptop, which ran faster, making her work easier. It took her five years, but she earned her bachelor’s degree in special education, doing her student teaching – where else? – at Sunnyside.

And this fall, she will have her very own classroom as she starts her teaching career right where the dream truly started, here at Sunnyside.

“I didn’t want to go anywhere else,” she says. “It’s my home. They’ve all seen me grow up here.”

The staff at Sunnyside has shown unflagging support for Whitaker as she pursued her education; they could all see her potential.

“From the moment Amanda Whitaker stepped into our classroom, we knew she was meant to be a teacher,” says Julie Koebcke, special education teacher at Sunnyside.  “She threw herself into our program 110 percent and became a teacher in that moment! It has been an amazing process to watch her start where she started and work so hard (all while being a single mom) to reach her goal of becoming a teacher. 

“I have nothing but admiration and pure awe for all that she has endured to get where she is today.  Seeing her sit behind her own desk, in her own classroom when I went to see her yesterday was bittersweet!”

Whitaker says it’s a bit daunting, having her own classroom and all the responsibility that entails. But she is confident in her abilities.

“I’m nervous, but I‘m excited,” she says. “It’s surreal, walking in here, having a key to my own room, decorating my own classroom.” But she knows she is prepared to advocate for her students.

“Some of these kids are told ‘You’re not the perfect, model child.’ And they may not be. But I want them all to feel special. They can be successful; they can go to college.”

For Whitaker, it’s been a long journey to get where she is. She is proud of what she has been able to accomplish – and it’s rewarding to know that her own children, who are all out of school now, are proud of her, too.

“There were times when I wasn’t sure I could do it,” she says. “But I worked hard.”

Whitaker knows she may see bits of her younger self in her students, students who may get off track and feel that they can’t ever succeed. She hopes to inspire them with her own story.

“Keep following your dreams,” she says. “Even if it doesn’t happen in the timeframe you thought, it can still eventually happen. It may have taken me longer and I may have done things backward, but here I am.”