Monday Profile: Columbus teacher retires after 25 years mentoring students and colleagues

At-risk students are typically attracted to Deborah Pounders.

The recently retired Columbus Municipal School District science teacher isn’t exactly sure why.

“I’ve never really figured out what I have to offer, but they’re very comfortable with me,” Pounders said. “I have unofficially mentored at-risk students throughout my career.”

During the 2019-20 school year, “unofficial” became “official” for Pounders. She created the Check and Connect program at Columbus High School, which matches at-risk students with teacher mentors. Pounders was one of the mentors and took part in a program she designed to not only keep the students on track, but also to make them proud of their achievements.

“We always had the opportunity to show them off and the students didn’t feel like we were just telling them everything they needed to fix,” Pounders said.

The program was one of Pounders’ many achievements in a 25-year career of much mentoring – and not just for students.

With a master’s degree in teacher leadership from Mississippi State, which she earned in 2020, Pounders has made it her mission to help aspiring teachers adjust to a challenging field. She calls it a “win-win” and says she can capitalize on her energy and knowledge of new technologies while helping them avoid burnout — a persistent problem among those in their first five years of apprenticeship.

“I like to see that there are people out there who are still passionate about education because we really need it right now,” Pounders said.

Her retirement was made official at the end of the 2021-22 school year, but Pounders isn’t done helping out. She switched to part-time counseling for teachers in need of support and to tutoring in preparation for the state examination in biology.

“I don’t want to completely distance myself from the students because that’s what I love most about teaching: my kids,” said Pounders.

Travel the world
Pounders has demonstrated this while holding various roles at CMSD. She began her career as a long-term substitute before taking a full-time position as a middle school teacher.

From there she worked for eight years at the CMSD Alternative School. Pounders taught science in seventh and eighth grades, a mixed science class—biology; physical science; human anatomy; and physiology—and even a world history class.

She said she quickly learned that it was important to be thorough and flexible, but caring for the students was paramount.

Deborah Pounders poses in Yellowstone National Park, Montana, with a sign indicating equal distances to the equator and the North Pole. Pounders took students to Montana to attend the annual HATCH Summit and learn how to test water quality. Photo courtesy of Deborah Pounders

“That was the most important thing: relationships with students,” Pounders said. “What is important to you personally? What are your goals? What do you want to do? You can take students anywhere once you know what they are working towards and they know you really care and support them.”

In some cases, “taking students everywhere” took on a literal meaning. As part of a partnership with the National Science Foundation, Pounders sent students to the University of Maine for training in water quality assessment. Upon returning to Columbus, they tested the water quality at the Magby and Luxapalila creeks.

Pounders also took students to Montana, and she was allowed to travel once to the Australian island nation of Tasmania as part of the MSU GK12 INSPIRE program at Mississippi State University for field research in environmental sciences.

She said a visit to Australia was “on her bucket list” but it would have been expensive on a teacher’s salary if NSF hadn’t covered the cost.

“It was an incredible opportunity,” said Pounders. “I always tell students, ‘Education can take you places you didn’t think you could go.'”

going out strong
After more than two decades at CMSD, the 2020-21 school year took Pounders to another unknown place: Starkville.

After just completing her master’s degree, she left the district for a position at Partnership Middle School, hoping to work with the new teachers and teacher interns that Mississippi State was sending to the school.

But the Pounders’ best plans went awry. The COVID-19 pandemic restricted in-person classes, and MSU student teachers were not even allowed into classrooms.

Pounders said leaving for Starkville made her realize it was time to return to Columbus. CMSD was “lucky” to have a position in biology open, and she jumped at the chance.

Pounders, a lifelong resident of Columbus who attended Caldwell High School and received her bachelor’s degree from Mississippi University for Women, said she was ready to come home.

“This is the place that built me ​​and I feel like I want to continue to help build the community,” she said. “I think the best way to achieve that is with a strong education system. If students can get an education, they can do anything they want.”

A strengthening education system — the Mississippi legislature passed a pay rise for teachers in March — is one of the reasons Pounders decided to retire after completing the school year. Her husband Harold is also retiring this year and she wanted to spend time with her mother, four children and three grandchildren.

“I wanted to retire in a good season where I was positive about education and I felt like I was leaving the students in a good, positive place,” Pounders said. “I never wanted to be one of those teachers who hangs around too long and everyone’s like, ‘Why isn’t she retired?’

“I wanted to go out with a good grade,” she added.

Theo DeRosa covers Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.

Leave a Comment