From homeless mother to an early childhood classroom: Here’s what this Detroit educator learned from a remarkable 2019

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Though she’s still new to the early childhood classroom, Rosey Lyons is quick to see the ways children bring their home lives into the classroom.

She knows many of their struggles first-hand.

At the beginning of 2019, Rosey Lyons was a homeless high school dropout, a single mother who spent an inordinate amount of time on buses trying to get herself to work and her four young children — ages 1, 3, 4, and 5 — to childcare.

By year’s end, Lyons, 28, was a certified assistant teacher at Children of the Rising Sun Empowerment Center in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood. She had a house, a van, and a high school diploma. 

“2019 was epic,” Lyons said.

We spoke with Lyons about her reflections on teaching and her remarkable year.

Rosey Lyons, 28, with her four children after graduating high school (Zina Davis)

Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Early educators in Michigan are severely underpaid, and many struggle with credit card debt and meeting basic expenses. How have you dealt with that aspect of your new job?

I have worked since I was 16, and I have never made as little money as I make here. And it’s still a better job, a better career, than any other place I’ve ever worked. 

I can’t see myself not working with kids. I know I can help them. I can be there for them. Like I wanted somebody to be there for me.

What was going on in your life when you decided to seek childcare for your kids?

Well, I have just finally left a domestic situation with the father of my kids. And I was technically homeless, me and my kids were sleeping anywhere from motels, to my car, people’s couches, floors, pretty much anywhere we could get. I had started working at Amazon and needed childcare.

How did you wind up in an early childcare center?

When I came to do a walkthrough [to find a place for my kids], I told Zina [Davis, the center director] that I have four kids that needed before and aftercare while I worked at Amazon. And I let her know like, ‘Hey, I have nobody backing me. I really need childcare. Because I want to work you know, my goal is to provide for my kids.’

But once she let them in, the paperwork didn’t come through in time so I didn’t have childcare, and I lost the job at Amazon. 

And at that point she said to me, ‘You know, I’m looking for somebody for my childcare center.’ She would ask me what my experience was with kids, and it went from there.

You had a remarkable 2019. How are things going now?

We’re still adjusting to having our own house. It’s still a check-to-check situation, but I have a check. We’re still getting our house together, but we have a house. It’s still like, ‘what’s that noise coming from the van?’ — but we have a van. We’re sitting comfortably in the van, we’re not running over to catch the bus. It had been me leaving work at 6 p.m. with four kids, and they were walking a mile sometimes to the bus.

Everything tried to tell me to just hang it up. Give these kids to somebody who can do it better. Don’t work with kids when you can’t provide for your own kids. And today I feel like I did a complete 180. I’m not where I was and my kids are doing better.

You finished your last few high school credits online (and a Child Development Associate certificate) after you started your new job. What was your graduation ceremony?

I went and walked across the stage in front of my four kids last year. Nothing is more beautiful.

I saw some people who walked across the stage back when I was originally supposed to. And they said they were proud — I was a success story because some people will leave school and never go back.

What’s something that surprised you about teaching?

When the [director of the center] hired me, I thought I’d be like a babysitter. And it’s so much more than that. You’re teaching these kids problem-solving skills, conflict resolution skills. You’re not just in here trying to drill them in reading, writing, and arithmetic. Sometimes these kids come and they don’t have any nurturing at home, and they’re looking for you to give it to them, and that’s okay. I’m here for it. A teacher is everything. I don’t take my own children’s teacher for granted because they don’t have to be here doing this. The work is underrated.

You also found housing during 2019 after a being without a place to stay. How did that happen?

I was working with different agencies to help me and my kids get housing. And it was taking so much longer than I was told. I felt that I would never have taken on school or a new job if I had known it would take this long. I mean, me and my kids were living in motels, living at my sister’s, living at my cousin’s, living in the car. It was like fight or flight at that point.

And I end up getting a call one day from a lady at Community Housing Network. And she said, ‘Hey, Miss Lyons, I’m calling because you’re the next person in line on a waiting list to be accepted for this housing program.’ So I went there and I filled out a lot of paperwork, and then I was just calling them every day, like, ‘did you hear anything? Is there anything I can do?’

And it kept getting pushed back, but finally, I got the call on August 28. So me and my babies got to be in our own house where nobody can put us out.

How did you manage to get ahold of a car amid everything else that was going on?

One of my students here has a grandfather who does a lot of good work in the community. He saw me and my children leaving work one day, walking to the bus stop. And of course, it’s dark. It’s cold. And he took it upon himself, he said, ‘I’ve got this van I’m not using, and I want you to have it.’

He made sure it was roadworthy. He made sure I had my insurance and everything together. Then he literally handed the keys over. I had never been handed anything in my life, I didn’t want to take it. I felt like I needed to pay for it, I said I would come do odd jobs at his office. And he told me no, but to make sure that I paid it forward in life.

What’s the hardest part about being a teacher?

In general, the hardest part for me is separating from teaching when I go home. Because sometimes I will stay in teacher mode with my own kids, and they might not need a teacher at that moment. They might just want mommy. They might just need somebody to listen, somebody to cry to, somebody to vent to. Once 6 p.m. hits, even if I have to go home and write a lesson plan, it doesn’t matter. I still have to find time to deal with my kids just as their mom.

What’s been one of your favorite lessons to teach?

We have Friendsgiving during the harvest season, and we asked the kids to bring in objects from home. It was impactful to see what the kids brought that was comforting to them and has meaning to them. These are small children, and for some, it was a book. And you get a different view of them because you don’t see their home life, you see them at school.

What’s next for your family?

It feels good to cry happy tears finally, because I’ve cried a hell of a lot of sad ones. And now it’s like, ‘Where can I go from here?’ People are saying, sit down and rest, but I doubt it. Now I’ve got to elevate everything that I worked hard to get in 2019. I can’t remain stagnant. I don’t want my kids to get comfortable with anything unless there’s nothing else they can achieve. You always want to know something else.