PANTA initiative helps mother, daughter earn degrees at MSU-Meridian

Brianna Whittle (left), a first-grade assistant at Union Elementary School and Miranda Whittle (right) a kindergarten assistant at Neshoba Central Elementary school participated in the Professional Advancement Network for Teacher Assistants initiative at MSU-Meridian. The initiative helps assistants or other paraprofessionals who want to become licensed teachers complete their elementary education degree.


For most student interns, stepping into the role of classroom teacher for the first time can be a little intimidating. But that certainly wasn’t the case for a Neshoba County mother and daughter who began attending Mississippi State University-Meridian together two years ago.

Miranda Whittle, a kindergarten assistant at Neshoba Central Elementary and daughter Brianna Whittle, a first-grade assistant at Union Elementary School, participated in the Professional Advancement Network for Teacher Assistants initiative at MSU-Meridian. The PANTA initiative helps assistants or other paraprofessionals—who want to become licensed teachers—complete their elementary education degree.

When they heard about PANTA from MSU-Meridian faculty and learned that the coursework is designed to meet the needs of working professionals like themselves, there was no doubt in their minds where they wanted to complete their elementary education degrees. Through the PANTA initiative, coursework is typically offered in a blended format of live face-to-face, live online, and asynchronous online classes.

Fourteen of their co-workers also are participating in PANTA. Half will earn their degree in May and, like the Whittles, have spent the past few months transitioning from teacher assistants to primary teaching positions in their respective schools. The transition is made easier as teacher candidates participating in this initiative complete most of their field experience in the classroom where they are employed.

“I’ve been an assistant for 13 years, and since I already knew the kids and had worked with them, the role of teacher—particularly classroom management—was not that hard,” said Miranda, who begins her Neshoba Central kindergarten teaching duties this fall. “It is more stressful being the one in charge and responsible for the day-to-day activities inside the classroom. But my mentor teacher, university supervisor and principal were such a great help and gave great advice.”

Brianna found the biggest adjustment was for her students.

“My first graders were used to me being the assistant, not the teacher, so there was an adjustment period,” said the soon-to-be first-grade teacher in Union Public Schools. “But it didn’t last long. I’m also very thankful to my mentor teacher, university supervisor and principal for all they did to work with me and show me how to be the best teacher I can be.”

Miranda knew in high school she wanted to be a teacher. For Brianna, the seed was planted as a child.

“I have so many memories of going to my mom’s classroom every day after school and getting old worksheets from her,” she said, “and then I would go home and play school. My sisters were the students of course, and I was the teacher. I think part of the appeal was I didn’t want to be the one to do the homework,” Brianna laughed. “Instead, I got to assign it.”

After high school, Miranda attended East Central Community College, married and started a family. She chose to stay home with her three daughters rather than immediately complete her education. Once they started attending school, however, so did she—first as a substitute, and then as an assistant at her children’s school.

As the girls grew older, she talked often about going back to school, until a car accident took the life of her middle daughter in 2017.

“Not long before Bethany passed, she had been encouraging me to go back to school,” Miranda recalled. “But after she died, my desire did too.”

A few years went by before Brianna, who had taken a break from her college studies, discussed the two of them finishing their degrees together.

“I think we both felt this was a way we could honor the memory of Bethany and make her proud,” she said.

The Whittles have discovered that going to school together was mutually beneficial for both.

“I was a little behind on technology, and Brianna was a big help in getting me up to speed,” Miranda said. “It was also good to have a built-in study partner.”

Brianna said, “What I really liked was how I could ask Mom questions when I didn’t understand something and, since she had so much more experience in the classroom than I did, she was usually able to help.”

As their college days have come to an end, the mother and daughter are grateful to their family members for their sacrifice over the past few years.

“My husband and youngest daughter have been great, giving us space and grace to do our classwork and study while they often cooked and took care of the household,” Miranda said.

“It’s definitely been a family affair, and we are thankful for all they’ve done for us.”

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