By Linda Conley - (Spartanburg) Herald Journal

When a young child can identify shapes, colors and numbers, it is like planting a seed to produce good fruit for head start teacher Marcus Tate.

Nurturing a seed carefully is a lesson he learned growing up while working on the farm with his grandfather in Cherokee County. Tate, a teacher at Piedmont Community Action’s Z.L. Madden Head Start Center in Spartanburg, has transferred some of those gardening tips to the classroom.

His leadership and approach to learning are part of the reason he was named the South Carolina Head Start Teacher of the Year. Tate recently received the honor in Myrtle Beach at an annual spring training conference of the state Community Action Partnership and the state Head Start Association. The presentation was made during an awards banquet. Tate was selected from a field of 21 nominees representing Head Start and Early Head Start programs statewide and is the first man to win.

“It was very humbling and exciting,” he said. “I was the only male nominated so when the woman announced the first male teacher of the year, everyone stood up and starting cheering. It was like being in an NBA game with the score tied and only five seconds to go and you shoot and there is silence, but when the ball goes through the hoop, everyone cheers.”

He will now compete against other teachers for the Region IV title. If he wins the regional title, he will compete on the national level.

Piedmont Community Actions Head Start is a nonprofit agency that serves approximately 570 low-income children in Cherokee and Spartanburg counties, according to its website. The mission statement says the program prepares young children to enter kindergarten by helping them to develop the skills needed to be academically competitive. The hope is early success in school will help them continue their education up through college and break the cycle of poverty they currently lived in.

Tate, a graduate of Spartanburg Methodist and Limestone colleges, has been a teacher for five years. He has a class of about 20 children ages 4 and 5. The classroom is filled with teaching tools to help students learn the alphabet, numbers, colors and more. It didn’t take long for him to realize some of the students needed more than the basics.

“We teach the fundamentals, but the main thing these kids need is love,” he said. “I am an African-American male and the children love being around me. One little girl asked if I could be her daddy. I said ‘How about I be your teacher daddy?’ She didn’t want that she said she wanted me to be her daddy.”

For Tate, his grandfather, Bob Tate, and his mother, Lesha Brannon, were the major influences in his life. Now, his wife, Laresa, director of the Inman Elementary Head Start, has become another influence. The couple doesn’t have any children yet, but Tate said he understands some of the students want and need a male presence in their lives. The best way he knows to help them is through teaching them the skills they will need to be successful in school.

His work is also giving him a chance to teach students some of the farming skills he learned from his grandfather, Bob Tate. The learning center has established a garden with the help of the Charles Lea Center and grant funding. Students work with Tate in the garden. He hopes the experience will help students learn about life and responsibility.

“It helps kids understand where food comes from,” Tate said. “They see food in the store, but they don’t always know that food is grown in the ground.”

His wife, Laresa, said she also was excited when Tate was named the state Head Start Teacher of the Year. She attended the event with her husband.

“I think he is very deserving of it,” she said. “I am not just saying that because he is my husband. I have seen him work as a teacher. When we are in stores or at Walmart, sometimes I will hear someone say ‘Mr. Tate.’ We don’t have many males in teaching, but children are drawn to the men in education.”

Willie Ross, executive director and CEO of Piedmont Community Actions, said Tate is a wonderful person and a big influence on the students.

“The boys and girls love him,” Ross said. “He is young, energetic, bouncy and bubbly. He is all of the things you want a teacher to be. He could have went into the public school system and made more money, but he chose to work with the Head Start program. He also gives the students a strong male presence that is positive, caring and nurturing. He picks up kids when they fall down and scrape their arms and legs and some of these kids have never seen a daddy do those things. I am glad he is working with our program and our students.”