Growing up in poverty in the back hills of Kentucky, Magdalene Bowman found school to be a haven.
"I was happy to go to school to get breakfast and lunch," recalled Bowman, a native of Detroit who moved to Kentucky with her family after her father passed away. "Often I wore the exact same, often dirty, clothes to school because we didn't have money for clothes and shoes."
Her family couldn't afford indoor plumbing, so laundry was done in the creek nearby.
"My sixth-grade teacher put a bag in my seat one day and told me to wait until I was home to open it," Bowman said. "When I got home, there were several pairs of pants, a few shirts, and a new black sweater in the bag."
In that moment, Bowman knew a teacher truly cared.
"Mrs. Sizemore looked beyond my dirty rags and saw the real me and my potential to be a great student," Bowman said. "I worked hard for her because I knew she really cared about me."
The act of kindness inspired Bowman to enter the teaching profession.
"I wanted to teach students and show them that I care about who they are and who they can become," she said.
Today, Bowman is a second-grade teacher at West Fresno Elementary, where she has taught for 22 years. She has been nominated for Teacher of the Year multiple times and won for Fresno County in 2014. She also received awards for her volunteer work with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central California.
"I enjoy feeling that I make a difference," Bowman said of her vocation. "Each day in the classroom — and outside of it — I try to push each student to be the very best person they can be. I try to make them see that obstacles are just challenges along the way and they make us stronger and better."
She especially loves when students come back to visit and share stories of their success.
"My heart is happy when they succeed," Bowman said. "I am proud that all of my students leave my class feeling like they are successful at something. They show great growth in their test scores, but also in their behavior and attitude."
All students in Bowman's district receive free lunch.
"The poverty is very noticeable," she said. "There is also a lot of gang activity in the neighborhood by the school. Both poverty and gang activity are challenges that my students face daily."
These challenges carry over into the classroom.
"I often have to make sure a child has food and feels safe before I can even start addressing academic issues," said Bowman, noting many parents of her students are non-English speakers.
"This poses another challenge. It is hard to communicate when you don't speak the same language," Bowman said. "It is also hard for those parents to help their children with homework, since they can't read it themselves. When my students don't get that extra help at home, it shows in the classroom. I often keep kids after school to help them, if their parents can't."
Bowman also teaches outside the classroom. On weekends, she takes students in groups of four to build things at Home Depot. She also takes them to national parks, the beach, state parks, hiking, and the local river center to learn about the world around them.
"Often they would never get to go to these places — many parents don't have transportation — and this opens their minds to new things and new possibilities," Bowman said.
“I love taking my students to our national parks —