Ashley Qualls knew she wanted to be a teacher early on in her life.
As a child, she would line her dolls and stuffed animals up and mimic the lessons that she observed from her mother, who was a preschool teacher.
She volunteered countless hours in her mother’s preschool classroom as well as her first grade classroom, and watched her mother interact and form bonds with the children which solidified her passion to be a teacher.
“I’ve known since I was about two years old that I had the skills to teach,” Qualls said. “I would pull out all my stuffed animals and start teaching them.”
A graduate of DeSoto County Schools, Qualls began her teaching career 11 years ago at Greenbrook Elementary School in Southaven, and is known among her peers for her big heart and as an exceptional teacher for students struggling academically and behaviorally.
Her passion for her kindergarteners and work in the classroom was recognized this week with her being selected as Desoto County School District Teacher of Year. Qualls was selected from a group of 42 of her peers who each earned top teaching honors at their schools.
“I was really honored to be Greenbrook Teach of the Year,” Qualls said. “It meant a lot to me that I was nominated. But then I was extremely humbled to find that out of 42 teachers, I was chosen.”
You might say that Qualls never really left Greenbrook. Her mother was an assistant preschool teacher at Greenbrook and she also attended school there. Qualls is a product of Desoto County Schools and a graduate of Southaven High School. She attended Harding University and spent time on a mission trip in Zambia, Africa, before beginning her teaching career in the community that she loves the most and calls home.
Qualls started out as a first grade teacher, but fell in love with the energy and excitement that kindergarteners bring to the classroom.
“I loved the kindergarten team and begged to be a part of it,” Qualls said.
Qualls said teaching is a rewarding but very challenging career. Students come from all different demographics and homes where their parents might be divorced, or living with their grandparents, and are exposed to issues like mental health, drug and alcohol abuse, or domestic violence. They come to school tired, hungry and distracted. It falls to teachers to understand their situations and their passions and work with them to aid those deficiencies.
Knowing that she can reach a child and make a difference is what keeps her energized day in and day out.
“I was going over phonics with two kids today,” Qualls said. “One little boy came in not knowing any letters of the alphabet. After the first six weeks of school, he knew every letter and every sound. I was trying to hold back tears as I was assessing him. Those moments make it worth it.”
It’s also knowing that she can turn to her peers on days when something isn’t working in the classroom and she is frustrated for advice that make the job so much easier.
“Someone said that if you love what you do, then you don’t work a day in your life,” Qualls said. “Whoever said that was not an educator. Educating is very hard but very rewarding and keeps me coming back. I am so blessed to have a great group of teachers around me that I can turn to any time. Teachers are ever learning and growing. And if we expect our students to grow and learn, then we need to be lifelong learners ourselves.”
And then there are the little moments that make her laugh. Qualls said it is absolutely true that kids do say the darndest things. Just this week, one child told her that she looked like she had lost 12 pounds from the previous day.
Another time, a child noticed the picture of her on her ID badge which was taken 11 years ago and wondered what happened to her.
“Kids have no filter,” Qualls said. “I told him, ‘education happens.’ It was taken during my first day at orientation when you are looking all pretty, and you never look that good again. I was 21 and looked like I was in my 30s by Christmas break.”
Qualls said the secret to her success is a balance of structure and fun. She uses music to transition students from the carpet to their desks, assigns certain jobs like turning off the lights, and hand motions to communicate rules and what is expected of them.
“If you are not excited about what you are teaching, then they are not going to be excited,” Qualls said.
Greenbrook Principal Cynthia Dixon said Qualls has a real heart for her students and makes sure that every child gets what they need whether it is social, emotional or academic to succeed.
“She is there to make sure that our babies have what they need,” Dixon said. “I never have to worry about her room.”
Qualls is also married and the mother to two adopted boys, two year-old Cooper, and two month-old Jace.
She said she would be completely content to teach for 30 more years and retire at Greenbrook.
“I love this community,” Qualls said. “I feel like I have established myself here.”
Qualls has also been nominated for the 2021 Mississippi Teacher of the Year Award.