"Education has always been in my blood," Tameka Donaldson says. "When I was a little girl, there were times when I didn't feel too well, and my mom wanted me to stay home from school. But I always insisted that 'I've got to go to school. I've got to learn.'" And this sense of commitment carried her through an Ed.D. though her grandma was dying at the time. "I was very close to her," Tameka recalls. "When my counsellor saw how I was grieving, she suggested I put my studies on hold. But I said that 'my grandmother would have wanted me to go all the way,' and I succeeded in getting my doctorate in educational leadership and management."
Now she practices a special kind of leadership as director of the KinderCare Learning Center in Grove City, Ohio, where she's worked for the past 15 years. She's a servant leader whose goal is to help her staff develop by giving them a voice. "I always tell my teachers there is no 'I' in team," she explains. "We are like a family, and I let them know how much I need their input. To me, a manager is a dictator, while a leader is someone who also follows. So, I let my teachers help me run the center and listen to their opinions. I give them full rein in their classrooms and make them the first point of contact with the children's parents." As a result, her center consistently gets the highest possible score in the Human Sigma 6 Gallup, a widely recognized measurement of leadership, business excellence and employee engagement.Her center also receives high scores for parent satisfaction because her teachers have both the patience and the training they need. "I have a staff of 12 people," she says, "and under my leadership, 10 have received their Child Development Associate® (CDA) credential. I always make it a big occasion when they earn their CDAs and encourage them to go on with their education. The CDA is a great beginning." And it certainly was for Tameka, who earned her credential in 2003, shortly after getting her first job as a preschool teacher.At the time, she had dropped out of college to stay home and take care of her children. "One day," as she recalls, "I said, 'I'm ready to do something with my life.' So, I walked over to the Edwards Creative Learning Center, a day care that was across the street from my home. I filled out an application and they hired me as an assistant teacher. Within 3 months, they made me the lead teacher. And four years later, I became the center's director."As she rose in her career, she kept advancing her education, but she has never forgotten how it felt to get that first credential. "When I earned my CDA, I was so excited. It gave me such pride and such a sense of achievement to know that I was a qualified teacher." Now she also helps others make that start in their careers by serving as a PD Specialist for the Council."I wanted to become a PD Specialist," she says, "so I could help other educators in improving their classroom environment and outcomes. I've done over 100 verification visits and most of the candidates have enjoyed me being there. Sure, a lot of them are nervous, but they calm down when I tell them 'I'm not here to hurt you. I'm here to help you get your CDA.' And when they do earn their credential, I give them my number and tell them to call me if they need advice. I always keep that door open."Her ears and heart are also open for the families and children she serves at KinderCare. "Most of the population we work with is economically challenged and many of the children come from single-parent homes. Many of the parents are really stressed because they have no help, so I'm never too busy to talk to them. Sometimes I feel like I'm a psychologist," she says. And she doesn't just listen to their problems; she gives them a lot of practical advice. "I point them toward community resources that can help them, whether it's food or rent assistance," she explains. And she also urges her staff to give families the ear they need. "I always tell my teachers that the most important part of our job is building relationships with families. Once they trust you and know you're there for them, it makes your job much easier."Tameka puts her soul into her work because she's firmly convinced that "no child should be left behind" and that "we, as teachers, build the foundation for our students' future lives." By partnering with families, she says, "we make sure that every child is excelling as much as they can before going on to grade school."Of course, Tameka's staff still faces some roadblocks as they work with young learners who have behavioral issues. But Tameka won't give up on a child until she has exhausted every possible resource. "I tell my teachers we don't know what the children's lives are like," Tameka says. "We don't know what they're dealing with at home. We need to peel back those layers, the way we did when one child was acting up at 10 in the morning. It turned out that the child was simply hungry, but we had to get down and talk to him on his level to find out."There are more young children like him in the area Tameka serves, and a year ago their plight led her to set up a nonprofit, Bridging the Community Together for Success. "We provide meals, warm clothes, household items and anything else they need," she explains. And this means a big personal investment. Most of the funding for the program comes out of Tameka's own pocket and she cooks many of the meals she passes out.While she's waiting for grants, she's glad that some of the families at KinderCare have chipped in. She also has some staff members who have made donations, and one teacher has joined her on regular weekly visits to the homeless. "We partner every Sunday to go to a prearranged space," she says. "We feed the homeless and give them groceries and clothing. Then we have a little service for those who can't get around and go to church."Tameka's aid to the homeless and needy, like her work with young children and families, is part of her mission as a servant leader. "I feel like God blessed me tremendously," she says. "I'm not rich, but I feel like I'm supposed to help others, not keep everything for myself. At KinderCare, I serve the children and their parents, along with my staff. And through my nonprofit, I serve the needs of the community at large."Despite all she's already done she has a couple more things on her bucket list. "I'm in the process of writing two children's books—one on bullying and the other on friendship—that will help children with their lives. I'd also like to do more to advocate for early childhood teachers because this field has a lot of quality people. They don't get the wages they need to survive and the challenges they face break my heart. I'm ready to expand what I do for others even more because my sole purpose is to serve."