Amanda Cox was named Interim Head of Heathwood’s Early Childhood Learning Center and Lower School this summer after serving for a year as a lead teacher in the Early Childhood Threes. She came to Heathwood with 18 years of teaching experience at schools ranging from Pontiac Elementary to the University of South Carolina to church preschools. However, she didn’t know teaching was her vocation until she was a couple of years into college at Brigham Young University. Now she’s so passionate about early childhood education that she’s pursuing a Ph.D. in it at USC.
Here she talks about what drew her to teaching in the first place; why elementary and early childhood education is so important; and why Heathwood has been a perfect fit, both for her and for her three children.
Why did you decide to pursue a career in education, and, why early childhood education in particular?
I started college with the intention of becoming an attorney. But, as I began taking pre-law courses, I realized my heart wasn’t in it. I had completed the Teacher Cadet program in high school in Spartanburg where I did hands-on work in schools and I found that I really enjoyed working with children. Two years into college, I switched majors to elementary education, to something I had enjoyed. I still did not initially envision myself in early childhood education, but once I had my own children I fell in love with that age—their sense of wonder, their excitement about learning—and went back and earned my masters in it.
And now you’re working on a Ph.D. in early childhood education. How far along are you, and, what’s your primary research interest?
I’m almost done with my coursework, so the main thing I have left to complete is my dissertation. I’m researching how we should educate our educators. How does the quality of a teacher’s education impact what happens in the classroom and the students’ experience? Are our early childhood educators getting the right preparation?
In addition to your early childhood teaching and research, you’ve also taught 2nd, 3rd and 4th grades. In what ways does your current role allow you to draw on the work you’ve done throughout your career?
I have always loved seeing children take ownership of their learning, and seeing those moments when ideas click in their heads - when they’re really making connections between different things they’ve learned. Now, I have the opportunity to see that across a range of ages. I miss being in the classroom every day with three-year-olds who are always so excited to learn, but I also love working with teachers and parents, and it’s nice to be able to do that across so many grade levels.
You taught in Spartanburg and Charlotte for years and then came to Columbia when your husband’s legal career brought him here. What made you choose Heathwood as a place to work and to educate your own children?
When I was teaching at Spartanburg Day School, we were in the planning stages of opening a 3-year-old program, so we came here to research Heathwood’s Early Childhood Threes program. I was very impressed. I loved the hands-on learning opportunities, the outdoor education program, and the overall philosophy of the school. When we found out we were moving to Columbia, I knew this was where I wanted my children to go to school. And, luckily, Heathwood happened to be looking for a 3-year-old teacher at just that time.
How has Heathwood felt like a good fit for you?
The Heathwood community was so welcoming from the start that my children felt like they’d been here forever. Chacey is in 4th grade, Alex is in 9th, and Elliott’s in 11th, so when we arrived in the Fall of 2014, they were in three different divisions but all felt the same sense of community.
And on a pedagogical level, the way we teach all aspects of the child made Heathwood a perfect fit for me. After years of teaching, I’ve seen how important it is to give children a well-rounded educational experience. Just as an athlete is never going to reach his or her full potential by doing the same kind of workout every day, our brains don’t reach their full potential if all we feed them is traditional academic work. You cultivate leaders by developing students spiritually, physically, socially, and culturally, as well as academically. I’m proud of the fact that at Heathwood our academics are challenging, but they’re just one piece of what we do.
Why is it important to begin the process of educating the whole child early?
Giving children hands-on research opportunities and critical thinking skills at an early age strengthens their brains and allows them to become independent learners who can problem-solve and think creatively. Those are skills they’ll need, not just later in school, but in their professional lives. I love that at Heathwood we train students to be confident about taking risks, to know when to ask questions, and what to ask. Those are the things our alumni tell us make them stand out from their peers in college.
You’re a division head, a mom of three, a wife, a Ph.D. candidate … that’s a pretty full slate. But, what else do you do? And, what might your students and coworkers be surprised to know about you?
I love to run and just completed my second half-marathon. However, my favorite race is the Ragnar Trail Run in Atlanta. I run this every April. I am part of a team of 8 women; 4 from Columbia and 4 from Charlotte. We collectively run for 24 hours straight on the mountain biking trails used in the 1996 Olympics. Each person runs a total of 15.1 miles in three segments. As for what might be surprising, I share Chris Hinchey’s appreciation for rap music. But while he prefers ’80s rap, I like all of it. It’s great to listen to when I run.