Alyssa Bynum and Bob Sparks live in different West Tennessee communities, but they share some things in common. Both are successful teachers, both are dedicated educators, and both are now WestTeach graduates. They were members of the fourth WestTeach class that graduated Dec. 13 at the University of Tennessee at Martin.
WestTeach was created as a class project by the university’s 2017 WestStar Leadership Program class as a teacher-development initiative. A new class is selected annually by the program’s advisory committee following teacher nominations by school superintendents and directors. West Tennessee teachers selected to participate learn about the region’s economic needs and opportunities. Each class also meets with regional industry and community leaders to learn more about what their students might experience outside of the classroom both in the workplace and beyond. Twenty-four teachers completed the program bringing the four-year graduate total to 73. The Leaders Education Foundation is the program’s signature sponsor. Other WestTeach sponsors include Alexander Thompson Arnold PLLC, Security Bank in Dyersburg, SIC Management, Tennessee District of the TRANE Company, Cary and Lalania Vaughn of Millington, and the West Tennessee Healthcare Foundation.
Bynum, a third-grade teacher at Dresden Elementary School, was encouraged by her husband, Jake, to participate and experience what he described as “hidden value from WestTeach.” Jake is the Weakley County mayor and a 2013 WestStar graduate. “I was also really excited about the opportunity to get outside the four walls of my classroom and get some new and fresh ideas to bring to my classroom,” she said.
Participating with the different educators was likely her favorite part of the program, but she did question at first how the different educators would mesh and make the program work.
“I realized in the first couple of hours that really we all have the same end goal of getting our students ready for the real world, and all of our ideals and everything were aligned, and we were excited, and the room was full of educators who are excited to try new things,” Bynum said. “It was really empowering for me as an educator to be with that many people who love teaching as much as I do, so that was really the best part.”
Bynum said that she’s a “checklist person” as are many of her teaching colleagues. However, WestTeach showed that reaching out to her community, including leaders and businesses, can expand her teaching effectiveness beyond the classroom and her daily checklist of things to accomplish. “They’re out there, they’re waiting for me, but I need to make that more of a focus for myself,” she said of the resources that are all around her.
Bob Sparks teaches 11th and 12th grade English at Jackson Central-Merry Early College High. Also a veteran educator, his teaching career spans 15 years, including his four years at Early College High. Last year was especially significant for Sparks when he was chosen as his school’s Teacher of the Year, Jackson-Madison County Schools Teacher of the Year and was one of nine finalists for Tennessee Teacher of the Year and the West Tennessee Grand Division Finalist for the award.
In recent years, Sparks has become interested in the total educational system and seeing how education plays a larger role in communities. Among its programs, Early College High provides students the opportunity to earn an associate degree in cooperation with Jackson State Community College, so he sought more exposure to discussions about college and career readiness and workforce development. WestTeach offered a chance to learn more about these kinds of opportunities and resources in West Tennessee.
“There’s a real need for just this networking between the education sector, the business sector, higher education – because we really are just kind of at this like ‘catalytic moment’ in West Tennessee,” he said. “… There’s just a lot of opportunity and growth, and for us to really capitalize on that, it’s going to take everybody working together, this collective impact of schools, business, non-profits – everybody being on the same page to really take advantage of this and just make sure that the next generation has all the opportunities and dreams you want them to have.”
As with Alyssa Bynum, Sparks wants to make a difference in students’ lives, much like the teachers who influenced him. He also has teachers in his family, so the teaching profession appealed to him early on. “It’s just that family example and influence and then just the teachers I’ve had,” he said. “I want to give that back. I want to make that impact in students’ lives that they did for me.”
Dr. Versie Hamlett, Fayette County Public Schools superintendent, joined several West Tennessee school superintendents and directors who attended the event to support the WestTeach class members they nominated. Wes Holmes, a mathematics teacher at Fayette-Ware Comprehensive High School, was among this year’s graduates. “WestTeach is a great opportunity for classroom teachers to develop personal relationships, which will build a pathway for community success,” she wrote in an email response about the program. “The leadership activities allow teachers to be more effective in their roles.”
Hamlett is especially positive about the opportunity for WestTeach participants to grow as leaders in the teaching profession. “WestTeach is a guiding star that empowers educators to become true leaders for tomorrow,” she said. “This program allows teachers to demonstrate their true potential as teacher leaders in their buildings, which greatly impacts students, colleagues and communities.”
UT Martin Chancellor Keith Carver joined Dr. Charley Deal, the university’s vice chancellor for university advancement, in welcoming the group, presenting plaques and congratulating the graduating class. Carver was the event’s keynote speaker, but before his remarks, he told attendees how pleased he was to be among people who are passionate about educating young people and positive about the future.
“When you look at our country and all the things that we’re facing today and we’re fighting, I get encouraged daily when I go out to the schools and I meet students (while) recruiting them here to UT Martin,” he said. “We see the fruits of your efforts here daily, and so (we) just want to say, ‘Thank you so much for all you do.’”
Members of the 2022 WestTeach class are Melissa Berry, Henry County High School; Alyssa Bynum, Dresden Elementary School; Candi Collier, Milan High School; Bethany Enochs, East Elementary (Humboldt); Spencer Ezell, Huntingdon High School; Lisa Forsythe, McNairy Central High School; Wesley Holmes, Fayette-Ware Comprehensive High School; Tabias Hood, Tipton Rosemark Academy (Millington); Ann Johnson, Munford High School; Jamie Knott, South Fulton High School; Lauren Mathis, Dyersburg Intermediate School; Bellis May, Hardin County High School; Holly Meyer, Briarwood Elementary (Camden); Clayton Morris, West Carroll Jr./Sr. High School; Dana Parmenter, Ripley High School; Crystal Prince, Lake County High School; Rebecca Rainey, Lexington High School; Taylor Record, Dyer Elementary School; Monica Robbins, Holice Powell School (Dyer County); Deana Sain, Bolivar Middle School; Bob Sparks, Jackson Central-Merry Early College High; Jennifer Walls, Trenton Rosenwald Middle School; Ariell White, Anderson Early Childhood Center (Haywood County); and Haley Williams, Crockett County High School.
Learn more about WestStar and WestTeach at www.utm.edu.