News & Events
Ole Miss-DeSoto Grad Fulfills Mission as Teacher with St. Jude
Ole Miss-DeSoto graduate Mandy Shelby-Little of Horn Lake uses her education and her life experiences each day as she serves as a teacher to children who are being treated at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. Photo by: Kevin Bain, UM Senior Staff Photographer
Ole Miss-DeSoto graduate Mandy Shelby Little of Horn Lake, learned firsthand about coping with the pain and fear of supporting a family member fighting cancer. In 2005, her father, Tommy Shelby, was diagnosed with esophagus cancer. The Shelby family focused on treatments and enjoying precious time together until April 2006 when Shelby lost his battle with the disease. A few years later, Little decided to use this difficult experience with her father to head in a new direction in her career as an educator.
“Working with children at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital was a big dream of mine for many years,” Little recalled. “I volunteered several times and felt like I could really make a difference in these children’s lives, so I decided to apply for a full-time position as a teacher in the school program.”
Shelby gave up the perks of summer vacation, spring break, and long holiday intermissions in order to work daily with the children at St. Jude’s whose treatment schedules dictate they receive tutoring and school sessions year-round to help maintain grade-level performane.
“Our goal is to keep our kids on track, so that their life is moving forward while they are fighting cancer,” Little said. “We meet in our classroom if they feel like it, but we also go to their patient rooms or their treatment areas. As long as they feel up to it, we will bring their work to them wherever we can.”
Staying on track with education was important to Little as she grew up in Walls and graduated from Horn Lake High in 1999. She moved right into classes at Northwest Mississippi Community College in Southaven and Senatobia while she worked full-time as a teachers’ assistant at Horn Lake Middle School. Upon completion of her NWCC courses, Little transferred to the Ole Miss-DeSoto campus in Southaven to work toward her bachelor’s degree in education.
“Becoming a teacher was something I really wanted to do,” Little said. “Being able to work while I was completing my college courses at Ole Miss-DeSoto worked out well for me.”
After graduating, Little began working as an elementary teacher at Robinsonville Elementary in Tunica County while taking master’s-level courses at the Ole Miss-DeSoto campus.
“I loved school and just wanted to continue learning,” Little said. “I wanted to become the best educator that I could be. My courses at Ole Miss opened so many doors for me.”
One class was so influential that Little took the information and research back to her supervisors in Tunica and lobbied for improvements to the gifted education program. She served as coordinator of this program in Tunica for two years, before returning to her alma mater, HLHS, to teach advanced placement and gifted English classes.
“It was a great experience—giving back to the school that had given so much to me,” Little recalled. “I enjoyed coaching the dance team and getting to know the students in my classes.”
Upon completion of her second year of teaching at HLHS, the opportunity to work at St. Jude became available, and Little accepted the position.
“I just felt that I was being led to work at St. Jude,” Little said. “I don’t know exactly how the students feel when they are sick, but I can understand how important it is for them to keep their normal life and activities. I know what happens during chemo treatments, and I understand what their parents are going through. It’s tough, but I hope that coming to class or sitting with me in their rooms can help them continue the important process of growing and learning.”
Little coordinates curriculums and tutors St. Jude patients in grades 7-12. She works with students from all over the country and from different parts of the world. These patients are visiting St. Jude for treatment of cancer or other catastrophic childhood diseases. One of the main focuses of the school program at St. Jude is to keep students on track with the grade-level at their own local schools. Teachers are in regular contact with the students’ schools to make sure that they are keeping up-to-date with their studies.
“We want the transition from their time here to the time back in their regular school to be as smooth as possible,” Little said. “ I am in constant contact with my students’ teachers. They can use their own textbooks, keep up with their assignments, and take the same exams. I can grade their work and report back to their regular teacher. They can even receive report cards from their schools. Just because they are sick, it doesn’t mean that they should miss out on their education.”
The school program suite and classroom, which Little shares with two other upper-grade level teachers, was recently re-designed and outfitted by the Target Corporation and includes a computer and interactive Smart Board along with colorful supplies, furnishings, and bookshelves loaded with reading material.
“We can sit one-on-one with students as long as they are not in isolation,” Little recalls. “Sometimes we must wear a mask or protective gown. This helps stop our germs from spreading to the student. Their immune systems may be weakened from treatments.”
The school program at St. Jude is licensed as a special-purpose school by the state of Tennessee and is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). Teachers work to meet with each student at least three times a week for an hour each time. They may teach in up to seven different subject areas. Lessons are developed for each student’s grade and skill-level.
“Our students still prepare research papers and take the ACT,” Little said. “It’s so important for them to continue on in their education so that they will have open doors for their futures.”
Little, along with her other co-workers, plan a yearly graduation ceremony for students in their senior year. They have had numerous celebrities stop by to provide the address and give special congratulations to the graduates.
“Her students love her,” St. Jude’s School Program Director Laurie Leigh commented. “Her enthusiasm and passion for teaching is obvious. She is flexible and creative in her approach to providing school services to our patients. She is an invaluable member of our team.
When asked about the challenge of working with young people facing cancer or other illnesses, Little was quick to respond:
“Even though our students are dealing with a daily struggle, this is really a happy, upbeat place to work. I leave here each day with a real sense of accomplishment. I know my dad would be proud of what I’m doing.”
Pam Starling, UM Division of Outreach
Video by: Ryan Whittington, UM Division of Outreach