Kicking the school year off with a superstar Teacher Spotlight! A seventh grade science teacher at Hardin Valley Middle School, Bethany Saunders, not only talks about energy but she brings it each and every day!
Adam: Where were you born?
Bethany: I was born in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Adam: What brought you to Knoxville?
Bethany: My Dad is a pilot and he flew for a company called Flying Tigers. Flying Tigers was purchased by a little company called Fedex and Fedex moved us to Memphis, Tennessee. I grew up in Memphis and then made my way over here.
Adam: What was your middle school mascot?
Bethany: A Dragon for Elementary, Middle, and High School.
Adam: What college did you go to?
Bethany: University of Tennessee. Go Vols!
Adam: What did you major in?
Bethany: I majored in Psychology and then got my Masters in Education.
Adam: Did you do both at the same time?
Bethany: I did my Undergrad in three years and I did my Master’s in a year and a summer.
Adam: You did it in three years?
Bethany: I came into college with AP credits and then I tested out of some classes and I took summer courses too. I just didn’t want to go home. I liked college a lot and being on my own. I took classes in the summer and a couple online classes and I just knocked them out.
Adam: Wow. That’s impressive!
Adam: How many years have you taught?
Bethany: I taught my internship year, then I had a part time related arts position teaching World Culture to kindergarten through fourth grade at John Spirit Elementary. This is my 9th year at a full-time position. You could say this is year 11 including everything.
Adam: So you recently moved back to Knoxville from Richmond. Where did you teach in Knoxville prior to coming to Hardin Valley Middle?
Bethany: I taught at Northwest Middle School for three years, moved away, came back and taught at Gresham for one and now I’m here for my second year.
Adam: What subjects are you teaching this year?
Bethany: We do year long subjects. I’m teaching seventh grade science. It’s a mixture of Chemistry, Life Science, and a little bit of Earth Science. Our standards just changed so there’s some new stuff that I’m teaching this year. I’ve only ever taught sixth and seventh grade. Science is the only thing I’ve ever taught besides my internship.
Adam: What’s your favorite topic in science to teach?
Bethany: Life Science. Anything Life Science because it has to do with systems and how things work together. It’s kind of an abstract concept. I really liked teaching natural selection and how mutations turned into adaptations. That was just really fun to see the kids learn about it. They know they exist but they don’t know how. Seeing them put it all together was really cool.
Adam: What clubs do you sponsor?
Bethany: I’m part of the NJHS (National Junior Honor Society) so I’ll be the cosponsor this year. Previous to that I have not sponsored anything because I’ve been busy raising family or being a first year teacher and just trying to get my head around things. Up in Richmond, I taught at two different schools during my three years there. I felt like I wasn’t able to get as connected with the clubs. I also enjoy more of the teacher side of things. I’m a lead teacher here and I really enjoy mentoring other teachers. That’s where I put my energy.
Adam: Absolutely. That’s good stuff. How old are your children now?
Bethany: I have two boys. Cooper is two and Miles is four.
Adam: Why did you get into teaching?
Bethany: I have always liked children. I’m that typical person that always knew they wanted to be a teacher. I thought I wanted to be an elementary school teacher, but my internship was fourth grade science and I discovered my love for science. Then, I didn’t get a job right out of college so I tried the related arts position which was more of a social studies. I knew I loved science, and not social studies. Someone took a chance on me for my first job, and hired me as a sixth grade science teacher. I couldn’t believe I didn’t think to major in science. I love it so much. When we moved to Richmond, I only applied for sixth grade science jobs and I ended up getting one. And then at the second school I worked at (to be closer to home) I taught sixth and seventh grade science.
Adam: Why did you go Psychology into Secondary Education? Was that intentional?
Bethany: No. You had to choose an area of study at UT. First, I chose English and after my first semester I realized it wasn’t for me. I thought it would prepare me to teach elementary students how to read. I knew I wanted to get out of college as quickly as I could because I wanted to be in the workforce. Psychology was a 26 hour credit major, and I ended up tailoring a lot of my psychology to early childhood development. I randomly took a bunch of biology and psychology classes not knowing that I’d be a science teacher one day. It was foreshadowing. I took a lot of comparative animal behavior classes because I’ve just always liked that branch of science. It was cool that it kind of checked that box for me in college. I have a psychology degree that I don’t use, which most people don’t unless they go to Grad School.
Adam: What would you do if you weren’t in teaching?
Bethany: I always said I love hairstylists. I’m fascinated how hairstylists can basically make people look pretty everyday. But I married an industrial engineer and I had no idea that the engineering field existed until I met and married my husband. It makes me sad that that was never offered to me because I feel like I would have been a really good industrial engineer just with the thinking and the problem solving aspect of it. So, I would love to be an industrial engineer if I wasn’t a teacher.
Adam: Tell me what an industrial engineer does.
Bethany: They think through systems and processes. They basically are just problem solvers. They go into companies and they see a problem, usually collect data, and run some sort of system to figure out the solution. That’s what my husband did for KUB.
Adam: Is it more for business or for manufacturing?
Bethany: All of the above. It’s such a broad field, which I think is so great. I tell the students all the time, if you become an industrial engineer, that’s not necessarily your job. Your job is problem solver. Companies look for different types of problem solvers and hire you. You never know where you’re going to end up. For example, I have a friend who works for Anheuser Busch. That wasn’t her goal to one day work for Anheuser Busch, but she is an industrial engineer with them and helps with their warehousing. It’s just a great field. But I love teaching. I’m really good at it and I enjoy it and so I’m happy with where I am.
Adam: Who was your favorite teacher when you were in school?
Bethany: Her name is Janice Martin. She is still a teacher. She was my English teacher in high school and she taught junior level English. Then, she also taught Etymology, which is the study of words. She let us kind of drive the teaching, which I really thought was cool. Then, when I took her again for Edimology class just to have her as a teacher, she was just really laid back and was one of those people that taught me how to be goal oriented but also how to have fun doing things.
Adam: Where did you go to high school? Classes like Etymology aren’t offered many places.
Bethany: I went to Collierville High School in West Tennessee. I mean we had AP classes and random classes like etymology, but then I’m also blown away when I look at the academy here and how they offer the nursing classes and all of that. I never had that opportunity. You were either on the vocational track or the college track.
Adam: Which educator have you learned the most from?
Bethany: In Richmond, the second school I worked at, my coworker Melissa Bills was the best partner that I could have! I’m the type of person where it’s hard for me to create something from nothing. I’m a good springboarder off of other people’s ideas, and she had all the ideas! We worked really, really well together. She’s also a National Board Certified Teacher. I was just so impressed with her drive. Every summer she would apply at VCU to get an internship to work in the science labs there. It strengthened me as a teacher to work with someone who was creative like that because I’m creative, but I need somebody to sound off to and to talk things out with. When I moved back here, I was literally emailing her every other day talking through my ideas. We still talk a good bit.
Adam: Have you found anyone here?
Bethany: Yes, Miss Brandt. We have that same relationship; we work really well together. She also is that person who can take my ideas and run with it. I’ll tell her, I have this idea for something, but I don’t know how to execute it. She can help me take that idea and get started. And then we just feed off of each other.
Adam: Have you earned any professional awards?
Bethany: All three years at Northwest, I had the highest value added in the school, and also for science. I’m very proud of that. I haven’t gotten any other professional awards, but I was voted Star 102.1 Teacher of the Month. I tried to get my National Board Certification. I started that in Richmond and it’s a very grueling process, but the school system pays for it. Tennessee doesn’t do anything for it so I was like all right, then I’m not going through this process.
Adam: What accomplishment are you most proud of?
Bethany: Two answers for that. The hardest thing I’ve ever done was having my children and physically, it’s grueling. Then, just emotionally being a 26 year old and wanting to work full time and also raise children. I happen to love my job and I’m a better person when I am working. It’s just hard. It’s hard to have toddlers and work full time. So I feel like that is my biggest accomplishment. There’s a lot of times I feel like I’m failing at parenting, but it’s still rewarding. My biggest accomplishment as a teacher was becoming a lead teacher my second year of teaching. My principal at Northwest saw something in me and took a chance on me when I only had really one full year of experience. I applied, I just went for it and she basically was like, you’re coachable so we’re going to hire you because we want to groom you. I felt like that was one of my biggest accomplishments because I’m very performance based. That’s just kind of how I was raised. I’m kind of hard on myself that way. I’m a goal setter and I want to do well at what I do. I was really proud of myself at that moment.
Adam: That’s something you should be proud of!
Adam: What do you consider a successful student to be?
Bethany: Successful students are growth minded. Growth mindset is a big buzzword right now in education. I truly only care if someone’s teachable. You have to be teachable. You have to know yourself. You have to know, am I capable of just sitting in the classroom and listening and getting the information? If the answer is yes, then go to this pathway. If the answer’s no, then you need to be doing something else to help you get prepared. A lot of times the kids think that it’s just going to either stick or not and that they don’t have any sort of ownership of their learning. They have to be willing to learn. They have to be willing to make mistakes and they have to learn from those mistakes.
Adam: What’s the difference between a good and a great teacher?
Bethany: Good teachers know their content and how to execute their content. Great teachers make relationships with their students and are good at their content and then know how to execute it. It’s really easy for learning to happen in your classroom when children feel like you care about them and you have a good relationship, a good rapport with them. I tell new teachers all the time that they are the content specialists. But you have to basically trick the kids into learning for you. Don’t look at them as your job, but look at them as people that you’re hanging out with for an hour, you’re teaching them this content, you’re figuring out what way is going to get that content into their head and they also feel safe to learn from you and are willing to do that. Some kids are like, I don’t want to go to that class. But for me, a lot of them do well in my class because they come in and even though they don’t want to do school today, they’re willing to come in and do that for Mrs. Saunders.
Adam: How are children different after being in a great teacher’s classroom?
Bethany: You can tell when a student has a great teacher the year before. They talk about their previous teachers. They’re very perceptive. They know what a good teacher is and what a great teacher is. I’ll talk about my teaching methods with them because I want them to know the reason why I’m not answering your question right now. Or there’s a reason why I don’t want you to answer this because I want other people to. I explained teaching methods to them a lot, which is also another thing that makes teachers great. The kids see a purpose for what you’re doing. They’ll say things like, my science teacher just made us take notes all year last year and I didn’t learn. It’s good for them to understand the reasons why we do things.
Adam: What improvement would you most like to see made to public education?
Bethany: I think it comes down to funding. There’s a lot going on in education right now that is upsetting to me as an educator. Funding being taken away or the controversial vouchers. I see the thought process behind both sides, but it’s frustrating that to me that the teachers are not the ones being asked as experts. Or maybe someone’s checked a box and found a teacher that agrees with them. So they’re like, “we did ask this teacher!” It’s just become very political and frustrating. I taught in Virginia, and that’s just one state up from us, for a county that decided to put education first so they raised taxes in order to completely change their infrastructure. They have a really good school system. If you even mentioned raising taxes in Knoxville, people get all bent out of shape. I don’t know why because I look at it as an investment. I think investing in your child’s education is important. I realize in West Knoxville, we are investing in our children and other ways in this area. But there are areas in Knoxville who have parents that aren’t investing in their children. Even a small raise in taxes could solve a lot of problems and could get teacher more support. I think teachers don’t feel supported.
Adam: What would you see some of that increased funding go towards?
Bethany: Special Education. We need more support for special education teachers. We need more TAs (Teaching Assistants). Not to compare again, but in Virginia, if I had any student with an IEP (Individualized Education Plan), I automatically had a TA in my class. Just a TA, not a special ed teacher, but another set of hands. It’s just nice to have the support and then it makes teachers feel like there’s less pressure and then we don’t get as burned out and then we want to be better. It’s a domino effect in a positive way.
Adam: What is something that you could use in your classroom?
Bethany: In this school setting, technology. We have nine Chromebook carts for the entire school. In science we can do a lot of simulations that we can’t do in the science lab. But another thing we need is science supplies. We don’t have a fully up and running science lab. We don’t have microscopes. We have four microscopes and that’s it.
Adam: In the whole school?
Bethany: Yes, and it’s not anyone’s fault. That’s what we were able to get with the money that we were given.
Adam: How many microscopes do you need?
Bethany: I would love just a class set. Even if we could have 30 than we could at least split them up between the three of us to do station rotations or something. With only four, you have to get real creative with them. It’s just little things like that. Just resources. At the beginning of the year I ask parents for gift cards because I didn’t really know what I needed and some parents were definitely willing to donate and I use them. I buy things on Amazon that I needed. I hate to say money, but sometimes ‘supplies’ is a monetary donation. I did a Donors Choose at the beginning of the year to get Chromebooks. So I have five Chromebooks for my classroom and I plan on doing that probably every year because it’s freeing to not have to sign up for a cart of Chromebooks and have to plan so far ahead to make sure that you have them to do this project. I like to do a lot of things like having the kids take vocabulary words and make stop motion videos. Or one thing I’m interested in right now is the Google VR where you put your phone into the cardboard thing and they can go on a virtual reality field trip. That would be so cool. All of that costs money.
Adam: What hobbies do you have?
Bethany: Teaching. My hobbies are red wine and hanging out with my family and we like to go to breweries, out to eat, we like to just hang and go places where the kids can run around and we can just sit and relax. I love TV shows too. I’m an extroverted introvert. I can turn it on and be very talkative, then I recharge by just sitting at home watching Netflix and not talking to anybody. That’s what I do.
Adam: What is a good way for a student or a parent to spoil you?
Bethany: Who doesn’t love Target? When I had newborns, we would take a weekly field trip to Target, just to get out of the house. Don’t you just go to Target and walk the aisles and spend 20 minutes in the dollar section? It’s all true. That’s all me. Target gift cards.
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