Reddick-Collier teacher retires after 36 years of educating young minds
Bonita Wilkerson-Mack, who retired after teaching for 36 years, shows her retirement award as she poses for a photo at Reddick-Collier Elementary School in Reddick, Fla. on Tuesday, June 7, 2022. In her 36 years, Wilkerson-Mack taught her students at Belleview Elementary, Fessenden Elementary, Ocala Springs Elementary, Reddick-Collier Elementary and was a sub at several others in addition to teaching at private schools in Marion County. She taught English Language Arts for 17 years at Reddick-Collier before retiring at the end of this school year. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2022.
Bonita Wilkerson-Mack has spent the past 36 years as an educator celebrating that “aha moment,” when a struggling student makes a breakthrough—and her teaching makes a difference.
Her first experience with teaching was at home, where she grew up as one of 17 children in her family. She spent her early days looking after her younger siblings and teaching them the lessons that only an older sister could. It was because of this that she knew she wanted to teach for the rest of her life.
“What inspires me is when I can teach a struggling reader how to read,” said Wilkerson-Mack. “That’s the bottom line, just the love of students and that ‘aha moment’ when they wake up and say, ‘I can read.’”
She has been a teacher in the Marion County area for her entire adult life, focusing on early childhood and elementary education. While attending North Marion High School, she worked at the Montessori Academy of Ocala after school.
She then worked at A Child’s Haven private school for 15 years before transitioning into teaching in Marion County public schools in 2000. She has spent the past nine years teaching English language arts and social studies at Reddick-Collier Elementary School, from which she retired this school year.
In all her many years of teaching, Wilkerson-Mack never grudgingly went into the classroom. Every day, she said, she felt a desire to see her students, adding that teaching brought her as much joy as learning did for her students.
“It wasn’t a struggle for me to wake up in the morning and go to my job site,” she said. “It was just the love of children, and to embrace those children and have them know that love.”
When her youngest brother Marcus Wilkerson was a child, he was one of those struggling students who faced difficulty in learning how to read. He recalled his sister teaching him to read but catching him making up stories based off the pictures. She knew he would need a little bit of extra help and love to reach that “aha moment” where he could read proficiently.
“She’s very patient, and that’s one of the things that I needed out of a teacher,” Wilkerson said. “I needed that extra help when I got home, and not just in school. I’d have to pull out my books and my paper and she’d take that time to help me.”
Wilkerson credits his big sister’s attention to his education for helping him grow into a successful adult who runs his own business. He said she has always had a generous heart, and that reflects in her relationships with her students.
“Everybody is not as fortunate as others, so a lot of times she’d provide shoes to bring, or pieces of clothes to school,” he said. “She’d bring some food and different things like that, because how can you teach a child if a child is hungry or getting picked on?”
Wilkerson-Mack said she attributes her patience and generosity to her faith in God, and said she strives to treat each student with kindness because she is just doing what Jesus would do. She said she believes God called her to serve as a teacher and there is no doubt in her mind He gave her this vocation so she may help others.
“There’s no maybe at all about it, I know it,” Wilkerson-Mack said. “The reason I know that is because from the beginning this was my calling, and He has confirmed His word throughout my life.”
She comes from a Christian family and has been a faithful parishioner at United Holiness Church of Christ Deliverance Center, where her father has been the pastor for over 50 years. In the same way that she said God called her to teach, she said she also felt a calling to retire.
“This past school year, back in August, is when I felt the compel, and I knew my chapter was coming to an end,” she said. “I knew that it was going to be my last year, because now it’s time to go into ministry in another phase of my life.”
As much as she has loved working with children, she said she knew it was finally time to take a step back and transition into the most literal form of ministry—the church. She said it has always been her family’s dream to expand the church by opening a school, and that her experience in education would make her the perfect fit to help make that happen.
The community formed around God has offered Wilkerson-Mack an invaluable support system, including her friend Jesalyn Rucker Norfleet.
“By joining their church, we became friends. We sang in the choir, did devotions together and did mission trips and outreach,” Rucker Norfleet said. “We have been friends for over 25 years, and since that time I’ve known her to be a passionate, God-fearing woman.”
Rucker Norfleet said that her friend’s dedication was not only obvious in church but extended to the classroom as well.
“Each stage that she went through from A Child’s Haven where she was the director, to everything else she does, she does it wholeheartedly,” Rucker Norfleet said. “She’s very passionate about what she can do with the children and with everything in life.”
Her ministry in the church and her ministry in education often overlap, and she also was able to share her love of God and teaching with her coworker and friend Diana McCullough.
“She expects nothing less than the best from her students, and nothing else will do,” McCullough said. “Not only does she expect that, she gets it, because they understand that she’s serious about her education.”
McCullough works as a receptionist at Reddick-Collier Elementary where she regularly interacted with Wilkerson-Mack and her third grade students. McCullough said the running joke among the students is that the two friends could be sisters—to which they respond that they are sisters in Christ. While Wilkerson-Mack cultivates a happy, safe environment this way, McCullough said the students know she means business.
“They understand that when she speaks, they stop to listen. She has great discipline and control over her students, and they respect that,” McCullough said. “So as a teacher, Bonita could teach my child.”
Now that Wilkerson-Mack has transitioned out of teaching into working with her family in the church, she said she will also work with her husband in his business, Mack’s Repairs Home Improvement. She said she looks forward to being able to support and help him through his dreams, as he has for hers.
“When you pass 50 and you’re working that hard, it really does some wear and tear,” she said. “I want to help him work smarter, not harder, as we’re going into our golden years.”
Wilkerson-Mack said that even though she is retiring and moving onto the next chapter of her life, she’ll never forget the ability she had to make a lasting impact on a student and help in their development.
“That’s why I keep going back to that ‘aha moment.’ I will just say thank God, I made a difference. Every day you wake up and it’s a different day, a different beginning,” she said. “And each one starts by saying ‘good morning, come on in.’”