Autumn Ratliff loves to teach school and also be a leader. Her selection last May to participate in the first WestTeach class for K-12 teachers, sponsored by the University of Tennessee at Martin’s WestStar Leadership Program, was the perfect professional-development opportunity. The information she learned, the communities she visited and the contacts she made will make her a better fourth-grade teacher at Briarwood Elementary School in Camden.
Those same experiences will also make her a better elected official. In November, the 28-year-old Big Sandy native was elected the first female and youngest mayor in the city’s history. She won the election unopposed, fulfilling a dream and a goal to serve the community she never plans to leave. Ratliff joined fellow class members for a recognition and graduation event Jan. 29 at Madison Downs Venue in Jackson.
WestTeach is a teacher-development program created as a class project by the 2017 WestStar Leadership Program class. 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 be recommended by their principal, director of schools or superintendent, and only one teacher per school district is chosen to participate. Four sessions held across West Tennessee from August through November covered topics in agriculture, leadership, education partnerships for economic development and building communities. Several 2017 WestStar class members attended the program sessions along with the 12 teachers chosen for the inaugural class.
Speaking before the event, Ratliff said that the decision to apply for WestTeach wasn’t difficult to make. “I think about my classroom and community all the time, and I was like, ‘You know what? I’ll give it a shot,’ and I didn’t know how great this was going to be,” she said. “And I’m so glad that I took that shot.” The WestTeach sessions provided practical information that she can use in her school, as well as important connections across the region that will benefit her as Big Sandy mayor.
“The biggest takeaway is that no matter where you are in West Tennessee, the same issues are occurring in different school districts,” Ratliff said. “And we learned so many great tips and helpful things that we could use to take back to our classrooms and to fix some of these issues.”
Following a reception and dinner, Dr. Charley Deal, WestStar executive director, welcomed the WestTeach class, WestStar board members and other WestStar alumni in attendance. He introduced UT Martin Chancellor Keith Carver who served as the event’s keynote speaker. Carver recalled a 2018 list released by the financial website WalletHub that ranked Tennessee as the “angriest state in the nation” and said that members of the WestTeach class can play a role in moving the state down that list through their work with young people.
“And I think if we just keep talking and keep working together across city and county lines, and keep investing and being an example for the youth, that’s going to be the key for our future,” Carver said. He closed by saying, “Thank you so much for what you’ve done this year. Thank you for the investments that you make into your communities. We are so proud to have you as members of the WestStar family.”
Following plaque presentations and the event’s conclusion, other WestTeach graduates shared Autumn Ratliff’s enthusiasm for the experience. “One of the first things we did was a poverty simulation, and although we know some of our students in school actually live in poverty … it’s different when you’re put in that poverty simulation where you’re playing the part of the child whose mom doesn’t have the money (to fully care for her children),” said Beth McManus, a Spanish I and II teacher at Union City High School. She also gained valuable insights to share with her students by meeting business and industry officials who talked about the skills needed in today’s workforce. McManus said that she pursues professional-development opportunities for her classroom teaching through translating, traveling, mission trips and other activities. “But growing your understanding of how the community works together with the school system comes from WestTeach,” she said.
Franky Hodges, who teaches U.S. history and economics at Peabody High School in Trenton, valued his interactions with other West Tennessee teachers. “This gave us an opportunity to come together and say, ‘Well, this is what I do and this is working. What do you do that’s working?’ And we could throw ideas off of each other to see what exactly is working in the field of education, and we could only make education better when we start sharing,” he said. “We’re in the kid business from Johnson City to Memphis and everywhere in between, and we need to share ideas with each other, and this (WestTeach) allowed us to share ideas.”
Dr. Norma Gerrell, Paris Special School district superintendent, was pleased to support Christy Buckelew from Paris Elementary School as a WestTeach class member. “One of the things that my teacher has seen, even though she works with third, fourth and fifth-grade students, is what we need to be doing to prepare students for work and the world, even in younger and younger years,” Gerrell said. “And I think that’s one of the things that we have to be looking for constantly is how are we going to promote college and career readiness, because we know that the majority of our children are going to stay at home. What are they going to be doing? We need them ready for that work.”
Nicole Kincade was a member of the 2017 WestStar class that created WestTeach and participated in all but one of the sessions. Kincade, chief operating officer for technology solutions company Twin Oaks, saw firsthand the program’s benefits. “I think the teachers really enjoyed it,” she said. “We enjoyed going through the program with them learning, you know, their perspective, allowing them to see our perspective, and so I think it’s (WestTeach) going to grow.”
Members of the first graduating class are: Todd Alexander, Hardin County High School, Savannah; Jill Baker, Lakeland Elementary, Lakeland; Christy Buckelew, Paris Elementary School, Paris; Tracy Connell, Huntingdon High School, Huntingdon; Kimberly Elliott, Westview High School, Martin; Franky Hodges, Peabody High School, Trenton; Cindy Landry, Scotts Hill High School, Reagan; Beth McManus, Union City High School, Union City; Lauren Newell, Dyersburg Intermediate School, Dyersburg; Holly Owen, Fifth Consolidated Elementary, Dyersburg; Lindsey Parham, McKenzie High School, McKenzie; and Autumn Ratliff, Briarwood Elementary School, Camden.