Renita Davis-Kelley’s mother always told her “When you’re nice and kind to people, that will always show up,” and that has been Davis-Kelley’s motto ever since. The teacher believes being nice and kind and showing students that she cares goes a long way and it will make the environment safe to learn.
Davis-Kelley is an economics and personal finance teacher at the Chesterfield juvenile detention center and has been there for 18 years (she has 25 years in education overall). She said her courses are in relation to what the market demands, and personal finance, a state requirement for students in Virginia.
Davis-Kelly taught business and marketing in North Carolina (she taught in Henrico prior to that) before moving back to Virginia and saw the position as a transition. She had never taught at a juvenile detention center before but she had the skill set for working with challenging youth and thought it would be a good fit.
Davis-Kelley likes that the class sizes are small and intimate because it allows her to get to know her students better and see their lightbulb moments.
“In the traditional setting, you have sometimes as many as 35 kids and you may not be able to see that right away but here,” Davis-Kelley said, “because we’re in a smaller environment and because the classroom sizes are small, we get to spend a lot of quality time with the kids, we really get to know them intimately.”
The detention center has a transient population, so every day is a new experience for Davis-Kelley. She said the beauty of being able to see different students at different times in their lives allows her to plant a seed, and although she might not see growth immediately, she does if they return.
Davis-Kelley is passionate about teaching and said it is the ideal occupation for her.
“I love the kids, they keep me youthful, they keep me with current trends. I learn all kind of new things with them, with their vernacular, the vocabulary,” Davis-Kelley said, “and I think that this is just the perfect job for me being in an environment where I can see kids get it … [and] thrive.”
In addition to teaching, Davis-Kelley has been involved with the detention center’s greenhouse program since its inception in 2007. The detention center’s former principal, the late Brad Peebles, presented her with the idea, and he had the science teacher Lamar Brant showed her the ropes helping her learn about plants and how to run the greenhouse.
Students in the program are responsible for growing and selling the plants, and Davis-Kelley said it is hard work but rewarding for her and for the students to take care of something from seed to growth.
Davis-Kelley has been Teacher of the Year three times during her time at the detention center, and she said she appreciates that her peers nominated her to receive the award.
“It is a complete honor and I’m very humbled by it, that people would see the work that I do in my classroom with the kids and to see that it’s meaningful,” Davis-Kelley said. “It’s an honor and … a blessing to be called the teacher of the year;I don’t take it lightly.”