by Julie Lineback

Mileigh Rabun never imagined she’d work with at-risk youth.

Homeschooled in her elementary years, she was taught to avoid them. Then she took Dr. Tom Peterson’s Critical Thinking in Teaching at the University of West Georgia Newnan and a spark was lit that turned into a mighty flame.

University of West Georgia Newnan education student Mileigh Rabun with a student at Northside Elementary School.“Dr. Peterson taught me that just because things happen to you, they don’t define you,” shared Rabun, an education major and Coweta County native. “It’s how you respond to them.”

Peterson’s philosophy is the epitome of the Spark Mentoring Program, a group he founded in 2009 where high-risk youth who have appeared at least once in the juvenile courts in Carroll and Coweta Counties are placed with pre-service teachers into a transformative community program. Rabun has volunteered with Spark since 2015.

“A lot of the problems these kids are having is not of their making,” she said. “It’s just bad situations that spiral.”

Rabun explained that a crucial part of the 10-week program is Cosmos, which helps to foster mutuality and cultivates an equal relationship between the younger, school aged participants and the older college students.

“Cosmos takes the events and the people in your life who have really shaped who you are—the good and the ugly,” Rabun described. “The Spark kids come in with their bad attitudes, not wanting to be present, and you can see them start looking fostered.

“We had a student just recently share that she had been raped, ran away from home and was homeless for a month,” she recalled. “A Spark girl approached me after and said, ‘That is so close to my life. Can you introduce us?’ They’re now friends. It’s so magical how it happens.”

Rabun has stayed in contact with one of the first students she mentored in the Spark program.

“My husband and I take him fishing and golfing. We tutor him in math and have met his family,” she shared. “He went from failing math to having a 3.6 GPA, being on the golf team and taking classes at West Georgia Technical College as a high school student.”

In addition to working with Spark, Rabun teaches third grade at Northside Elementary School in Newnan through a unique internship provided by UWG's College of Education. Whereas student teachers normally shadow the seasoned educator for a year and only get to teach two weeks, this internship allows Rabun to be in charge of her own classroom every day.

“My pedagogy is all about relationships,” she said. “I eat lunch with the students every day. The students look up to you in a way you could never imagine.”

Rabun, who because of this opportunity will graduate in April 2018 instead of December 2017, said her relationships with other teachers and staff members also plays an important part of this last year of college.

“Even if we don’t agree on things, everyone is so respectful,” she said. “I’ve never felt unwelcome or less of a teacher because it’s my first year.”

Mileigh Rabun leads a student in a trust walk for UWG's College of Education's Spark Mentoring Program.In fact, veteran teachers often approach her for advice in how to better engage high-risk students.

“Students know if you’re judging them,” Rabun shared. “If you look at them as sacred, they know that, and they act differently. It’s also about building relationships—playing with them at recess and talking to them at lunch. It really makes all the difference when they know you truly care.”

Her theory continues to be supported by the research she’s presented with Peterson at conferences. She recently submitted her first solo proposal to the American Educational Research Association conference that will be held in New York next year.

“It shows how the behavioral system isn’t always the most effective,” she said. “It is much more successful if you build that trust in the beginning. Then your classroom just falls into place.”

Peterson said it’s no wonder Rabun is already seeing success as an exceptional teacher and student.

“Occasionally, a student comes into one of my classes that is passionately committed to learn all they can about becoming a successful teacher,” he mused. “Mileigh is one of my brightest stars who is truly committed to making learning meaningful and fun for all—and I mean all—her students. Her passion and commitment are unparalleled when it comes to providing her students a sacred connection with her and with the subjects she teaches.”

Posted on November 10, 2017