By Jeff Keeling
Some of the Algebra II students in Ken Cutlip’s class at Science Hill High School may have learned to read in Woodland Elementary kindergarten teacher Robin Hunt-Adams’ class a decade or so ago. And just a few years ago, some of those same students probably went through Liberty Bell Middle School teacher Sarah Taylor’s “writing boot camp” as eighth graders.
Any students who are part of that trifecta have had their lives touched by all three of the Johnson City School System’s 2015 teachers of the year.
In the three teachers’ classrooms late last week, it didn’t seem to matter much that the school year was winding to a close. Cutlip had his first period charges hard at equations before 8 a.m. even arrived, and the give and take between students and teacher was flowing as the kids prepped for their final exams this week.
Cutlip says he brings the same passion to the classroom as he does to the basketball sideline, where he coaches the Topper boys’ team.
“I think it’s important that the students see that you take pride in your own profession and what you do, and I think you have to have a passion for what you do in the classroom,” Cutlip says. “I believe the students pick up on that, and that passion and dedication motivates them.”
That philosophy has translated into wins, both on the court and in the classroom, Science Hill Principal Melanie Riden-Bacon says. She adds that Cutlip is an excellent role model, not just as a teacher and coach but as a dad and husband.
“He’s really good at motivating students to accept nothing but the best from themselves,” she says. “He’s very good at explaining and tutoring and working with at-risk students, and getting them to accomplish what they need to achieve to their level of ability.”
That success means as much or more to the school than state tournament appearances. Riden-Bacon says Cutlip produces results on standardized test scores that are instrumental in Science Hill being in the top 5 percent in the state, and thereby a Tennessee Reward School (Science Hill earned the award in 2014).
“His test scores are just outstanding,” Riden-Bacon says. “He drives the students very hard, he’s very good, and they love to be in his classroom.”
For his part, Cutlip sees himself preparing people for life. Now in his 13th year at Science Hill, the Tusculum College and University High graduate has taught high school for more than two decades.
“Through math, I want to prepare students for life, teaching them about working hard, being accountable and dependable, and learning how to deal with success and failure.” He says math is a perfect vehicle for that, “because you can be really good at certain aspects of math and then get into another content area and struggle.”
Speaking of struggles, they are what most eighth-grade students have faced in at least some respect as they’ve worked their way through Sarah Taylor’s “writing boot camp.”
A longtime language arts teacher, Taylor says she always loved the writing element of her job. Several years ago, she approached Liberty Bell principal Tammy Pearce with an idea: create a writing intensive session for all 600-odd eighth graders in the school, to help advance their proficiency in essay writing. TCAP writing assessments come in the spring of that grade, and such a program, if successful, could make a difference.
Pearce accepted the idea, and thus was born the boot camp, something Taylor calls “the most phenomenal thing I’ve ever done.”
Each student sits under Taylor, often with 30 or more others, for one class period over a total of 22 days.
“They learn how to do the complete five-paragraph writing assessment,” Taylor says. “It’s so new to them, and that’s what I really like about it. They don’t have a clue at first, and then just to see the growth that they can have in that amount of time is really rewarding.”
Taylor, who began her teaching career at her high school alma mater, Sullivan Central, is in her twelfth year in the Johnson City schools. After helping eighth-grader Carter McClendon polish up a poem for an end-of-the-year assignment, Taylor – who will shift to the system’s “Response to Intervention” program next school year – reflects on the satisfaction of building a program that has helped students write better and gain confidence.
“You start out building on such small things, and for them, at the end they’re like, ‘wow, I didn’t think I could ever do this.’”
Sometimes, getting students through to the other side takes some individual attention, which is just what Adams is giving each of her kindergarteners as they pair up for some post-lunch math activities at Woodland. Adams is right there on the floor with her young charges, helping them count dice rolls, cards and other facets of numerical game play.
“I think you just need to love on the kids and take each child where they are,” the 23rd-year teacher says. “Every single kid comes in with different things they can do, different skills, different home-life sets, and you just have to go from there. I think every child is capable of learning when you do that.”