Elementary school teacher Kelley Nichols wanted to teach in preschool because she knew she would get a discount for enrolling her own children.

But even as she grew into teaching prekindergarten, she realized there was a need for experienced educators to mentor pre-K teachers.

“I ended up falling in love with pre-K,” she said. “But I also saw the gaps in how educators are, or aren’t, mentored.”

This lack of mentoring for teachers eventually led Nichols to Porter-Leath, the city’s largest provider of early childhood education, which partners with Shelby County Schools for Head Start classrooms.

Nichols is now the vice-president of teacher excellence and will help lead the Teacher Excellence Program, a year-old training strategy to boost the quality of early education instruction in Memphis through mentoring and coaching.

Read more about the origins of the Teacher Excellence Program here.

Nichols, who started last month, was previously the director of curriculum and instruction at Capstone Education Group, a local charter organization. She replaces Rafel Hart, who helped launch the program.

The program trained more than 500 pre-K teachers in Memphis this school year, which is focused on four subject areas: socio-emotional learning, which aims to help students manage their emotions and learn self-awareness; literacy; health, and STEAM, shorthand for science, technology, engineering, art, and math.

All new Porter-Leath and Shelby County Schools early childhood educators go through this training, but longtime teachers are also encouraged to attend. Porter-Leath provides trained substitutes for those who can’t afford them to encourage Memphis daycare operators to send their teachers.

Nichols said feedback from past participants is helping her shape the program’s second year.

“We heard from teachers that they felt like they could walk out of a training and implement what they learned the next day,” Nichols said. “We also got feedback that the relief teachers made daycare operators comfortable to come to training. They didn’t feel like they were losing a day of instruction with their kids, because an experienced teacher was subbing for them.”

Some of the teachers who go through the trainings are assigned a coach from Porter-Leath, who work with them all year long. Nichols said she hopes to add more coaches to Porter-Leath’s staff. Currently, eight coaches oversee 12 teachers each.

“Teachers have voiced that coaches need lower caseloads, Nichols said. “Our coaches have developed really trusting relationships with teachers that help teachers really dive into how to improve instruction. We definitely want to grow this.”