Paul Richards’ education career is off to a positive start as a second-year middle school literature teacher at Bradford High School in Gibson County. Beyond the classroom, his selection last May to the second WestTeach class provided knowledge and insights that will benefit his students. WestTeach is a teacher-development program created as a class project by the UT Martin WestStar Leadership Program’s class of 2017. Richards was among 22 WestTeach class members who graduated Jan. 28 at Madison Downs Venue in Jackson.
Prospective WestTeach participants must be K-12 teachers who want to remain in the classroom but also aspire to be leaders in their respective schools and communities. Program applicants must also be recommended by their principal, director of schools or superintendent, and only one teacher per school district is chosen to participate. Four WestTeach sessions held across West Tennessee from August through November covered topics in agriculture, entrepreneurship, leadership, education partnerships for economic development and building communities.
For Richards, working with fellow WestTeach teachers created bonds that made the experience beneficial. “Once we came together, we had our first session, and we started sharing our ideas, our passions, all of this, and I realized, ‘Hey, we’re one in the same here. We’re on the same side, so why not come together, for example, with WestTeach?’ And we kept building and building and building on top of that until now and our graduation. I feel like we’ve had a really successful thing happen here,” he said.
Through WestTeach, Richards and his classmates were exposed to new ideas and gained knowledge that will carry over into the classroom. “I am a UTM graduate, but college doesn’t necessarily have to be the answer for every student. There are other options (for education and careers) out there,” he said. “Through this program, we have learned that there are many, many options – many, many different ways for … anybody to be successful after high school.”
Dan Black, superintendent of the Bradford Special School District, attended the WestTeach graduation to support Richards. The longtime educator said the program is beneficial for teacher development, and he plans to continue his support for educators like Richards to participate in the future. “I would encourage any of my teachers to be a part of it, and I would take care of anything that they need to be a part of it,” he said. “It (WestTeach) just helps them become better at what they do and understand the surroundings that we have in West Tennessee. I think it’s a great program.”
Following a reception and dinner, Dr. Charley Deal, WestStar executive director, welcomed the WestTeach class members and their families, as well as WestStar board members, alumni and program sponsors. He introduced UT Martin Chancellor Keith Carver, who served as the event’s keynote speaker and spoke about life lessons learned from his late aunt, Katie Sue Fewell, an educator who taught history for many years at Alamo High School in Crockett County. Although she was known as a schoolteacher, he said she was probably better recognized as a community leader or, in today’s world, a servant leader. Carver recalled four life lessons from this important role model, which he encouraged everyone in the audience to apply in their own lives.
Those lessons included to “always wear the same-size hat,” which meant to always practice humility. Carver said that while people can accumulate many things in life, “What we need to invest in are people, in relationships, in our towns, our communities, our schools, the school children, the people that we work with every day. And always wearing the same-size hat means … keeping grounded and focusing on people and relationships.”
“We’re all turtles on a fencepost” was the next life lesson, and Carver emphasized that gratitude is a foundation of relationships. He recalled Fewell taking time each day to tell someone how important they were to her. “She kept a stack of notecards on the kitchen table, and every night after dinner … she would write handwritten notes to people,” he said. These notes included uplifting words to people who were experiencing tough times, and when he talked to her about these notes she would say, “So many people invested in me, in my time here, that I’m going to make sure while I’m here that I’m always telling someone how grateful I am for them, how proud I am for them, how I’m praying for them.” He reminded the audience that “we’re all turtles on a fencepost” and to always be grateful to others for helping us along the way.
Carver next advised the audience to “always bloom where you’re planted.” Although his aunt was an avid gardener, this advice went beyond growing beautiful flowers and plants. She made the decision in her 70s to run for Alamo mayor, and a hard-fought campaign ended in a nine-vote loss. Carver remembered that he and other family and friends were disappointed, but she congratulated her opponent on a clean, hard-fought election and moved forward. “Here tonight, I don’t know what you’re struggling with. … Life’s going to throw haymakers at us, but what we can do is we can control our response to those. … If we’re consistent in our response, we can handle whatever life throws at us,” Carver added.
His aunt’s final life lesson was about bravery, and he told of her battle with cancer after her diagnosis shortly following the election. She eventually had to leave Alamo to live with her son in Tullahoma, Tennessee. In her final days, she requested to see the Carvers’ first child, their daughter Carson, and he and his wife, Hollianne, took the baby to see her. Besides the joy of seeing the child, his aunt used the occasion to urge him to keep his priorities in order. “You’re going to have so many opportunities to help people,” she told him. “But it’s going to take courage, and you need to make courage a habit.” He then added, “Folks, if we do the right things and the little things, when life’s big haymakers come at us, we’re going to immediately by default do the right thing and the big things.”
Following plaque presentations and the event’s conclusion, other new WestTeach graduates shared their thoughts about the program. “You learn so much about West Tennessee and what West Tennessee has to offer for our students, that they don’t have to leave West Tennessee to go find bigger and better things,” said Brittan Knott, a teacher at Martin Elementary School. She added, “By teachers experiencing this, we’re able to know what we can talk to these students about, what they can go do after high school, what they can go do when they graduate. They don’t have to go off to big, better places. Right here in West Tennessee, there is so much.”
Catherine Nailling teaches at Lake Road Elementary School in Union City and was also impressed to learn about the job opportunities available for young people in West Tennessee. She said other teachers would benefit from participating in the WestTeach program. “It has been a wonderful learning experience, and the vocational aspect of how I can train my children, or provide for the children that I teach, to be ready for the workforce has been invaluable, and I really think that other people need to experience that,” she said.
Elizabeth Russell Owen, of McKenzie, a manager with WestTeach sponsor Alexander Thompson Arnold PLLC, was a member of the 2017 WestStar class that created WestTeach. She believes in the program’s purpose and what it’s accomplishing for participants. “It’s important to give the teachers, the backbone of the community, an opportunity to learn what we get an opportunity to learn through WestStar,” she said. “They don’t have the opportunity to go through the full WestStar program because of the time restrictions, but teaching is just so important because it touches everyone in the community and all of the youth and (is) building a foundation for continued progress in the community.”
The 2019 WestTeach class will next host the West Tennessee Education Summit on Feb. 28 at Jackson-Madison County General Hospital in Jackson. All conference activities will take place in the hospital’s J. Walter Barnes Conference Center. A panel of teachers, superintendents, legislators, school board members and private business owners will discuss challenges facing education across West Tennessee. Anyone involved in education and workforce development are invited to attend. For information, contact WestStar at 731-881-7298.
Members of the 2019 graduating class are: Cary Bivens, Riverside High School, Decaturville; Colette Carrabba, Chester County Junior High School, Henderson; Cara Chadwick, Carroll County Technical Center, Huntingdon; Sharon Clark, East Side Intermediate School, Brownsville; Sarah Comuzie, Camden Central High School, Camden; Ronny Criswell, Trenton Elementary School, Trenton; Chad Davis, Halls High School, Halls; Brittany Fowler, West Carroll Elementary School, Trezevant; Carrie Jones, Inman Middle School, Paris; Brittan Knott, Martin Elementary School, Martin; Nicole Lusk, Hardin County High School, Savannah; Stacey McAdams, Bells Elementary School, Bells; Meredith McMackins, Finley Elementary School, Finley; Catherine Nailling, Lake Road Elementary School, Union City; Madine Nichols, Selmer Elementary School, Selmer; Amanda Pruitt, Huntingdon High School, Huntingdon; Paul Richards, Bradford High School, Bradford; Shelly Russell, Bargerton Elementary School, Henderson; Beth Smith, Brighton Elementary School, Brighton; Lindsay Walker, Union City Middle School, Union City; Christina Warren, LaGrange-Moscow Elementary School, Moscow; and Anne Ladd Welch, Dyersburg Primary School, Dyersburg.