Georgia's top teacher taught alongside effective and struggling colleagues and learned from both

Casey Bethel, a science teacher at New Manchester High School, in Douglas County, is 2017 Georgia Teacher of the Year.

Credit: Maureen Downey

Credit: Maureen Downey

Casey Bethel, a science teacher at New Manchester High School, in Douglas County, is 2017 Georgia Teacher of the Year.

Casey M. Bethel is the 2017 Georgia Teacher of the Year. In this piece, he focuses on teacher mentors but goes deeper into how to make mentoring work. He says mentoring ought to be tiered -- veterans should mentor mid-career teachers, who would in turn mentor new teachers.

A little background on Bethel from the state Department of Education:

While studying genetics in graduate school, he became a research scientist at the University of Georgia's Center for Applied Genetic Technologies. He felt his happiest instructing undergraduates during labs and, because of that experience, he decided to become a teacher.

"I turned to education, and I never felt so alive," Mr. Bethel wrote in his application. "As a first-year teacher, even though I was exhausted every evening, I could not wait to get to school the next morning for one more chance to inspire the next generation."

Mr. Bethel is a part of the Georgia Intern Fellowship for Teachers at the Georgia Institute of Technology. This program provides a paid summer STEM internships in industry workplaces and university laboratories for K-12 science, mathematics, and technology teachers. For the past five summers, Mr. Bethel has conducted authentic biochemistry research aimed at finding cures for inherited Glaucoma and Alzheimer's disease. Mr. Bethel credits this collaboration with broadening his instructional tools to teach concepts and techniques to high school students. Because of his work, he was awarded the Paul A. Duke award from Georgia Tech for lessons designed and published in The Journal of Chemical Education.

Mr. Bethel sponsors a male mentoring club at New Manchester called Project Manhood. Every Tuesday, upwards of 50 male students dress professionally to meet and discuss important issues. The club's motto is "Succeed at School, Succeed at Life." As a group they work on improving school culture and community service projects.

His classroom mantra comes from a Chinese proverb that says: "Diligence is the path up the mountain of knowledge. Hard work is the boat across the endless sea of learning." He has reached the lives of his students, and his classroom is exciting, motivating, and inspiring, demonstrating his belief in the teaching profession.

Here is Bethel's column:

By Casey M. Bethel

My first year as a teacher, I stunk! I hope you don’t ridicule me for admitting it. I thought if I stood in front and explained, kids would listen and learn from me – but I was wrong. I needed to learn how to teach.

I struggled with everything, from classroom management to choosing meaningful assessments.  That year, my students learned in spite of me, not because of me. I’d joined teaching to make a difference, and I wasn’t making one yet – I needed to figure it out quickly or find something else to do.

That summer, I read every education book and studied tons of school acronyms. But it’s what happened at the start of the next school year that made the difference in my career: because of overcrowding, my class was relocated to a trailer.

The trailer housed four classrooms, two on each side with a single hallway. It wasn’t the most desirable place in the school, but it’s where I found exactly what my delicate career needed. Fate rescued me in that trailer.

I was partnered with two effective, veteran teachers and one newer, struggling teacher. This provided exactly the right learning environment for me to improve. I could look across the hallway and see which strategies worked, and then glance at the struggling teacher and see what didn’t. In one year, I learned how to build student relationships, plan engaging and relevant lessons, and balance a commanding and nurturing presence in interacting with students – not to mention countless other attributes of an effective teacher that weren’t taught in any of the classes I took.

The amazing thing is that all of this happened organically, without any of us mentioning it.  In one year, I was fully transformed and my teaching career was salvaged. I emerged talking differently, walking taller, knowing I was making a difference.

What happened to the other struggling teacher? Last I heard, she was selling real estate. All she had to do was heed the conversations at our team lunches or imitate some of the modeling we were privy to, and things might have turned out differently.

Looking back, two things stuck with me. First, I deeply regret what happened to my newer colleague. I wish I’d done more to help her. I wish I’d felt confident enough at the time.

Second, I’ve realized my experience illustrates the formula for the most effective type of teacher mentoring. I don’t know if my principal had this outcome in mind when he placed the four of us together, but imagine how different teacher development would be if what happened to me became the norm. Could this strategy improve teacher retention? I think so.

What I’m describing is called tiered mentoring, and it’s not a novel concept. The best teachers will confirm that even as they progress in years, they maintain relationships with mentors they learn from and emulate. Likewise, those same teachers will tell you career growth comes from leading their peers – specifically newer teachers who are navigating the rigors and responsibilities of the profession.  The two can happen simultaneously.

This happens in some schools, for some teachers, but it’s not the norm. Most often, new teachers are paired with “master” teachers, chosen for their years of experience – not necessarily their effectiveness at mentoring.

There are at least two weaknesses in this approach. First, the new teacher often struggles to build a connection with the longer-serving teacher. There’s such a gap there, and the two teachers’ needs and perspectives are so different. They’re too far removed from each other to build the most meaningful type of relationship.

Second, what happens after the first year? Is the rookie assumed to be secure? Normally these teachers graduate from the mentorship program and are left to sink or swim. Not coincidentally, this is where we see the largest number of teachers leaving the profession.

If tiered mentoring was adopted universally, I believe it would correct the shortcomings of the current system, plug the hole in the teacher pipeline, and save us from losing more than 40 percent of new teachers.

I’m not suggesting we put all new teachers in a trailer. I’m saying veterans should mentor mid-career teachers, who would in turn mentor new teachers. All teachers would be actively engaged in the process, fostering career-long growth.  Teacher effectiveness is a journey, not a destination.

Tiered mentoring would give new teachers the support they desperately need – from someone who still remembers what it’s like to be new.