HUNTERTOWN — The world of education has changed a lot since Brianne Mitcham last stepped into a classroom as a full-time teacher, but the Northwest Allen County School district has remained a constant in her life over the years.
“I was not made to be a stay-at-home mom,” Mitcham said in expressing her excitement over returning to the profession.
Mitcham started her teaching career in Kokomo in 2002, but she put things on hold for nearly a decade and a half to raise her three children, who currently attend school at NACS. This year, she took a job teaching third grade at Eel River Elementary School — her first full-time teaching position in 14 years.
“All the aspects of education have changed,” she said. “As far as school readiness, nowadays if you’re coming into kindergarten and can’t read, you’re already behind. Back when I was teaching, kindergarten was fun and you played all day. It’s very different now as far as accountability of students and life readiness. I’m glad my kids got to grow up in this district.”
Mitcham taught at Elwood Haynes Elementary School in Kokomo until 2005, when her first child, Charlie, was born “with pretty severe needs” due to medical negligence, she said.
“He spent the first 16 days of his life flying to Riley,” Mitcham said. “They said ‘He’s not going to amount to anything, he’ll never hold his head up, he’s going to need significant this and significant that.’ As a teacher and as a parent, if somebody tells me he’s not going to do it, I’m going to make sure he does it. That’s why I quit my job and just became his caretaker. He was never supposed to walk or eat and he does all of those things.”
For Charlie’s incredible progress over the years, Mitcham partly credits NACS, which was what prompted her family to relocate in the first place. One of her cousins who lived in the district at the time had spoken highly of its program and, despite being nine months pregnant, Mitcham and her husband decided to make the move to Fort Wayne in 2011. Within five days, they had settled into a rental house in Carroll Oaks to ensure Charlie could be enrolled in kindergarten for the upcoming school year.
“We haven’t looked back since,” Mitcham said. “The special education program is amazing. I’ve been nothing but happy with it.”
Though it’s been 14 years since she led her own classroom, Mitcham has gotten her feet wet in NACS buildings over the years. She worked in Eel River’s resource room during the 2016-17 school year before covering for a teacher on maternity leave in 2018. She also worked leaves at Hickory Center and all last school year at Cedar Canyon, in addition to helping with lunch and recess at Perry Hill.
“I’m glad I had those leaves so that I could dip my feet a little bit and then pull back and build up,” Mitcham said. “It’s been 14 years since I really taught as a teacher, so having those leaves was really beneficial.”
Mitcham said she’s excited to work under Eel River Principal Brad Zern again, after her first leave at the school. In addition to the other teachers she’s gotten to know over the years, she has reconnected with a familiar face from her long-gone days at Kokomo School Corporation. NACS’ current superintendent, Chris Himsel, who has been with the district since 2010, was the superintendent at Kokomo when she began her teaching career at Elwood Haynes Elementary School in 2002.
Mitcham still remembers meeting Himsel for the first time when she was a 22-year-old fresh out of college, and being terrified when he sat in on her first interview — which she laughs about in hindsight.
“He was so good in our district in Kokomo, and when he left to come up here I remember people saying he went to some ‘really ritzy school in Fort Wayne,’” she laughed. “They were really upset that he left because he did such a good job.”
NACS is a far cry from the district Mitcham left 14 years ago, but Elwood Haynes taught her a lot about how to interact with students, she said.
“It was kind of a rough school,” she recalled. “There were a lot of fights and teachers would get physically touched all the time. The kids just didn’t have very good home lives. Kids would come all week in the same clothes and on Fridays we would have to send home food. It was a rough area, but I learned so much working there — that compassion point of it — because the ones who were acting out were the ones that needed you the most.”
Third grade is Mitcham’s favorite to teach, she said, and she’s looking forward to connecting with a class of fresh faces.
“Third grade is my favorite grade because they still like you — they’ll give you a hug, but they can also tie their shoes,” she said. “I want to share what I know and what I’ve learned with them, and just have a good time. I’m excited to show them different ways to learn.”
Mitcham’s two sons, 14-year-old Charlie and 12-year-old Jack, attend Carroll Middle School, and her daughter, Ruby, 8, just started second grade at Eel River. Her husband works at General Motors in Fort Wayne.
“I’ve worked so hard to get a job and with my son to get him where he is, and my husband only has six more years of work before he can retire. I’m just starting,” Mitcham laughed. “It’s all been good timing. I got to stay home with my kids and didn’t miss all of those ‘first things,’ but now it feels like my time to do what I want to do. I’m ready to get going.”