By Jeff Keeling
Jeff Price loves Shakespeare, T.H. White and Cormac McCarthy. When the Science Hill High School English teacher approaches any of these authors with his students, though, Price’s knowledge of their works is a secondary consideration.
“I really care about my kids, and I’m teaching kids and not a subject,” Price, Science Hill’s teacher of the year, said Friday in a classroom plastered with reminders of the many students he’s taught at SHHS since 1999.
“It starts with them, trying to take care of them, and then I’m going to work really hard to know as much about my subject as I possibly can and do all the things I can to be able to convey that to my kids in an effective way. And I’m going to work harder than everybody else. Those are the three things that sum up my philosophy of teaching.”
Kelsey Bailey, a Liberty Bell Middle School language arts teacher, and Renee Wood, who teaches a multi-age kindergarten/first grade class at North Side Elementary, join Price as this year’s Johnson City School System teachers of the year.
The trio was selected by a committee of principals, central office administrators and former district winners. They’ll advance to regional competition next. Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year will be announced in October.
Bailey, a sixth-year teacher who expected to pursue a medical career until she was a high school senior, espoused a similar student-based approach to that of Price.
“I always say to my kids, ‘build a ladder, make it matter,” said Bailey, who teaches eighth graders. “I always use that to encourage them to think that no matter what we do, it does matter. Whether it’s writing or looking at a piece of literature, there’s some bigger picture and it matters more.”
People sometimes ask her how she could enjoy teaching young adolescents, but Bailey said her students are still impressionable, and care what their teachers think.
“To get them to realize that what they think matters, too, that’s the trick – that they’re old enough to have a voice and to take a piece of literature and say, ‘wow, the people in this story are who I could be, or an experience I could run into.’”
Price, too, likes to focus on life application to help his students want to learn. He’s known to be passionate about wrestling – he coached Science Hill for years and now coaches at Liberty Bell – and about T.H. White’s Arthurian novel, “The Once and Future King.” But the one-time seminarian, who’s been teaching English a total of 26 years, said his vocation is about something beyond Arthur, Merlin, or even Shakespeare.
“I think all great literature has some kind of spiritual efficacy,” said Price. “There’s some kind of lesson in there we can learn from characters, something we can learn from the events and the things that happen, so that’s constantly something we’re trying to do. In the jargon they call it ‘making a text-to- self connection.’”
For his part, Price believes he and his English department colleagues are teaching kids before they are teaching English. “Getting them ready for college and getting them ready for what they’re going to see when they get out in the world are two of the main things.”
Doing that under varying standards approaches is something Price has dealt with through the years, and Common Core, or the Tennessee State Standards, is no different. At its essence, Price said, the Common Core standards teach students a useful approach in terms of writing about reading, and finding textual evidence. Getting the kinks ironed out, though, is a work in progress, he said.
“Right now we’re going through some growing pains and after a few years, after we’ve trouble shot some things and have some good test materials, good practice materials to get the kids ready, we’ll be in good shape,” Price said.
“They’re asking the kids to use literature to learn and to use texts to learn, and that was always what I wanted to do,” Bailey said. “It’s a gateway to opening the kids’ doors to more literature, to get them to see a huge scope of texts and stories and characters and people that I think the old standards limited them from.”
Bailey said the path to her students’ success starts with her setting high expectations – “they would probably call me a strict teacher” – but goes nowhere without her having passion for her job and her students.
“We used a quote last year as a school that said basically, the kids don’t care until they know you care. The standards are my goal, and for them to master those standards, but they can’t get there until they care, and know that I care.”