WestTeach program honors class of 2021

JB Suiter teaches 10th grade geometry and personal finance as a Union City High School faculty member. He’s also known for coaching high school sports, and the coaching side of his personality is evident when he talks about his experience as a member of the third WestTeach class, sponsored by the University of Tennessee at Martin’s WestStar Leadership Program. Suiter was one of 15 class members who graduated Thursday, Dec. 16, at the Madison Downs Venue in Jackson. Class members represented 15 West Tennessee school districts.

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.

“I’m always looking for new ideas to improve on what to do in the classroom,” Suiter said of the WestTeach experience. “If there’s info out there that can help me prepare my students for what’s after high school, then I want to be a part of it.”

“I’m always looking for new ideas to improve on what to do in the classroom,” Suiter said of the WestTeach experience. “If there’s info out there that can help me prepare my students for what’s after high school, then I want to be a part of it.” The informational sessions were made even more effective as he shared the experience with his fellow WestTeach educators whom he compared to having teammates.

“Well, for me, I’ve done a lot of coaching in my time, too, so it’s like being on the same team and working towards some common goals,” he said. “We’ve been able to discuss some difficulties of the classroom.

“Here recently with the pandemic in mind, we’ve been able to talk about some ideas and share some things that work and don’t work in the classroom, but ultimately, it’s been about being able to network with others outside of my school and being very beneficial to see what everyone else is doing.”

Among Suiter’s most valuable WestTeach takeaways was learning what’s available to students today that maybe wasn’t available to them 10 years ago. “When I came up in high school, we just had the notion of there being a four-year college and that being the only opportunity really, and that’s not the case anymore,” he said. “Now students have the options that can fit into what works best for them, whether it be a four-year college, a trade school, or maybe even going directly into the workforce in some cases.”

Suiter and his fellow WestTeach class members will have many opportunities to apply in their schools what they learned during the recent months. Given the challenges of keeping students engaged, what keeps this veteran educator motivated? “Seeing that student or group of students that kind of finally get it, and it’s not always about whether or not they’re going to have As and Bs, or whether or not they’re going to get a 30 on the ACT,” he said. “But it’s when they kind of finally see that light at the end of the tunnel and know that there’s a spot for them after high school.”

Amber Ryan, principal at Lakewood Elementary and Middle School in Henry County, was among several principals and superintendents who attended the WestTeach graduation to support their teachers in the program. Ryan nominated 6th grade Lakewood teacher Colby Prosser, and Prosser fit the WestTeach profile perfectly. “She is always looking for ways to make herself better so that she can be better for our school and for her students,” Ryan said. “She’s a teacher leader as she’s constantly looking for personal improvement.”

“Teachers learn best from other teachers, and so allowing them to collaborate and to learn from each other, there’s no professional development better than that,” Ryan said.

For Ryan, supporting Prosser’s WestTeach participation not only benefits Prosser but also other educators around her. “Teachers learn best from other teachers, and so allowing them to collaborate and to learn from each other, there’s no professional development better than that,” Ryan said. “So that’s why I think it’s important that we give teachers the opportunity to get away from the classroom so that they can reflect, get stronger, get better, and then come back and then hopefully share that within the building as well – and the district.”

Dr. Charley Deal, secretary of the board for WestStar and UT Martin vice chancellor for university advancement, presided over the event that welcomed approximately 60 attendees. He introduced UT Martin Chancellor Keith Carver as the event’s keynote speaker, who highlighted three “lessons from adversity” based on the life of James “Jimmy” Braddock. The famous boxer overcame poverty, tremendous adversity, and a severe boxing injury to win a heavyweight boxing title in 1935 and later earned success in the military and business. His life was the subject of the 2005 movie, Cinderella Man, directed by Ron Howard.

Carver used challenges created by the pandemic to illustrate life’s peaks and valleys. “This has been one big valley,” he said of the pandemic. “But we’ve had peaks and valleys within COVID-19 when you think about schools and education delivery, and just about the time that we think things are going to get a little better, here comes another variant, or here comes a new policy, or here comes a new obstacle with a student in school.” Braddock also experienced many peaks and valleys, losing fame and fortune on the way to gaining skills that eventually made him successful. “Things are going to get better, and I think that’s really important to remember when we’re in those valleys,” he said.

Carver next urged the audience to learn from the challenges created by life’s peaks and valleys. Braddock emerged from major personal setbacks by adapting to his circumstances and eventually overcoming major challenges. In similar fashion, the pandemic led Carver to begin keeping a journal, and when he reviews his entries, he sees how adapting and changing during the pandemic have made him and others stronger and resilient. “I think we need to pause and reflect and think about, ‘What are the lessons that we’re learning during these crazy times, and how can it make us better in the end?’” he said. “That’s what Braddock did, and that’s what we can do, too.”

Lastly Carver advised each person to “not forget where you started.” Following his military service, Braddock began a successful marine construction business and later repaid the Catholic Charities organization all of the assistance he had received at other times in his life. He even helped to raise money so that those experiencing tough times would have a source of assistance. “Braddock, at the height of his fame, never forgot what people had helped him, and I think at the core, that’s what we’ve got to do, too,” Carver said.

Deal expressed his appreciation to the teachers and educators for their service. “These teachers are doing unbelievable work in the classroom,” he said to the audience. “It was a calling to go into education, and we appreciate you answering that call.”

Class members were then recognized for completing the 2021 WestTeach program. Those receiving graduation plaques were:

  • Jennifer Botticello, 8th grade algebra teacher, Munford Middle School, Tipton County;
  • Patrick Corbin, 6th-8th grade STEM teacher, W.O. Inman Middle School, Paris Special School District;
  • Ben Di’Chiara, 9th-12th grade STEM teacher, Peabody High School, Trenton Special School District;
  • Brittany Ferrell, kindergarten teacher, Anderson Early Childhood Center; Haywood County;
  • Beth Glover, reading intervention teacher and dyslexic screener, Milan Elementary School, Milan Special School District;
  • Amanda Gober, 8th grade math teacher, Hardin County Middle School, Hardin County;
  • Jill Huddleston, science teacher, Lexington Middle School, Lexington City;
  • Kandace Jackson, transition case manager, Weakley County Schools;
  • Austin Kissell, history teacher at Ripley High School, Lauderdale County;
  • Jenna Leonard, 5th grade math and science teacher, Briarwood Elementary School, Benton County;
  • Tom Mathis, senior seminar teacher, Dyersburg High School, Dyersburg City;
  • Colby Prosser, 6th grade English language arts teacher, Dorothy and Noble Harrelson School, Henry County;
  • JB Suiter, 10th grade geometry and personal finance teacher, Union City High School, Union City;
  • Lalania Vaughn, fine arts director of choral and theatre, Tipton-Rosemark Academy, Shelby County;
  • David Westberry, algebra teacher, Jackson Central-Merry Early College High School, Jackson-Madison County.

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