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First Class

Three education alums embark on their teaching careers.

By Elizabeth Anderson


Todd Whittaker teaches sixth-grade math at McCracken Middle School in Spartanburg.
Most people can tell you about that one special teacher.For Todd Whitaker, it was Mrs. Lewis, who came to all his basketball games when she learned he had no one to cheer him on.

For Ramonte Smith, it was Mr. White, who wouldn’t give up on him when he had almost given up on school.

For Haley Davis, there were two, Ms. Cash and Ms. Kimbell, whose passion for teaching and enthusiasm for math matched her own.

This fall, the three 2021 USC Upstate education graduates began their own classroom journeys, inspired by the educators who nurtured their love of learning and hoping to do likewise for their students. All three were hired at McCracken Middle School in Spartanburg, which like other Spartanburg County schools was welcoming students back for the first full in-person year in two years.

Ready … or not

Todd Whitaker smooths down a magnetic coordinate plane near the center of a whiteboard, then takes a step back to assess.

His classroom is starting to take shape. At one end of the board, five sheets of colored paper display his “strong start” guidelines. Near the corner of a long bookcase between the doors is a mailbox, where students will be invited to leave him a note, signed or unsigned, if they need help with anything.

Still to come are the Mario Uno cards Whitaker plans to tape to each student’s desk to assist with grouping activities during the semester. “Kids also love video games, so it gives them something to connect with me about,” says Whitaker, a Mario fan.

The day of preparations belies the time Whitaker has actually spent planning for this moment. At 35, he’s starting his education career later than his two Upstate colleagues, but he’s dreamed about being a teacher since growing up in a children’s home in Greenwood. In large part, that’s because of a teacher who made a difference to him.

During his basketball games in seventh grade, he became keenly aware of the absence of anyone in the bleachers to support him. He mentioned this to his English-language arts teacher one day, and from then on, she came to every one of his games in both seventh and eighth grade. “She was my hero,” Whitaker says.

He knows middle school has a reputation for being difficult to teach. Students are often awkward and self-conscious as they try to figure out who they are. Yet it’s a time when many kids can really use an adult’s support, Whitaker notes, as his own experiences show.

“Middle school was what stuck out to me, because that’s when I needed a hero the most,” he says.

What he wants his students to see is that while his path to becoming a teacher may not have been traditional, he nevertheless ended up exactly where he wanted to be.

“I can show them there’s more than one way to go through life, that not everyone’s the same,” Whitaker says. “I want them to come out with confidence in themselves and to believe that they’re capable.”

***

Ramonte Smith goes over a lesson with his seventh-grade geography class at McCracken.

Down the hall in the seventh-grade wing, Ramonte Smith looks a little overwhelmed as he examines the small wall of plastic bins filled with supplies that his retired predecessor bequeathed to him. A map of the world covered by a tattered sheet of plastic hangs behind the teacher’s desk, also left behind, but Smith is ready to make the space his own.

He picks up some posters he’s brought with quotes from famous figures – Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Maya Angelou. Those will be going next to his desk, along with his Upstate pennant and Pittsburgh Steelers poster. As with Whitaker, Smith has chosen items he hopes will help his students connect with him.

Finding a way to relate to his students – and for them to relate to him – is important to Smith, who will be teaching geography. While he loves sharing content with students, “I really like to understand students’ backgrounds, where they’re from, their family life,” he explains.

Smith knows from experience that sometimes a teacher needs to know a student’s struggles before they can help them learn. In middle school, Smith was far behind his grade level in reading and was placed in a resource class. He dreaded the idea of taking remedial classes in high school. But Mr. White was determined not to let that happen, and worked with him until he was at or above grade level.

The experience not only changed Smith’s life, it charted the course for his career.

“From middle school on, I always said I wanted to be a teacher,” he says. “I felt like some of my friends at the time missed out on a lot, and I didn’t want other students to go through that.”

He also recognizes how being an African American male teacher can have an impact. During his clinicals, Smith says he noticed how many African American boys gravitated to him, wanting to talk to him about their lives and show him their completed homework. They also were curious about him, and eager to hear his story. Each encounter, Smith says, left him thinking, “I have to meet the next kid, I have to change the next kid’s life, I have to be that inspiration.”

A South Carolina history buff, Smith is looking forward to getting his students excited about geography. More than that, though, he wants to help them grow as people. “That’s why I like geography, you have to talk about different backgrounds, you have to talk about different religions, you have to talk about where people are from and their culture,” he says.

***

Haley Davis teaches a lesson in eighth-grade science.

Upstairs in the eighth-grade wing, Haley Davis is facing the opposite problem of Smith. No one used her room last year, and it’s almost entirely empty, except for what Davis has brought in so far. Davis looks ruefully at the signs she hung up the day before, almost all of them now lying face down on the counters or floor, the double-sided tape no match for the humidity. “I was in here yesterday for four hours and that’s what I got done,” she says.

Davis is starting the new year as a stranger to McCracken. While Smith and Whitaker both taught at the school for clinicals and feel at home there, Davis is still learning her way around with help from her Upstate colleagues. She’s also teaching an unfamiliar topic, science, which means more preparation.

But Davis is used to adapting quickly to new circumstances. A Navy kid, she moved around a lot growing up. School was her “comfort place,” she says. “I put everything I had in me into my education.”

Math was something she was really good at, and at every new school, students would come to her for tutoring. At one point, Davis even looked into the requirements for working for NASA – a model astronaut sticking out of a box on a classroom desk and a large NASA sticker on her laptop testify to her enthusiasm.

But while she ruled that career path out, Davis realized she enjoyed helping others learn math, and decided teaching was a natural fit. She also gravitated to middle school right away, which she admits some people find hard to understand.

“I’ve always felt like I connected with middle schoolers better,” she says. “Around certain people, I’m very shy, but when I’m around that type of energy in the classroom, I match with them better. They’re at the phase where half of them want to be grown, and half of them are still children.”

Still, experienced teachers have advised her to be strict with her students starting off, lest they take advantage of her, Davis says. She notes she also looks young, adding to the challenge of appearing authoritative. “I was told not to smile until December,” Davis says.

She says she prefers getting to know her students. At Upstate, she took all the core classes offered in child advocacy studies, and wants to support students through whatever challenges they’re facing. Some of the things kids told her when she was student teaching were heartbreaking, she says. “I never knew kids could mentally be going through situations like that.”

Her goal for the year, she says, is “more than just teaching them science in a classroom, it’s helping them be people and teaching them life lessons and listening to them.”
Lessons learned

By the end of November, with finals just a few weeks away, the teachers have established a rhythm with their classes and with the school routine at large. Each sees areas for personal improvement, but they are proud of their successes, too.

Smith says the semester turned out a little differently than he’d thought, though not in a bad way. If anything, he identified opportunities to do better.

“One thing I expected was a first-year teacher to be almost coddled,” he says. While he says he has definitely gotten a lot of support and assistance, “they do allow you to learn on your own.”

That’s meant spending more time than he initially anticipated on developing his own tests and materials. “One thing I know I need to improve on is understanding what I’m doing ahead of time,” he says. “Being able to pace myself to be a month ahead or so would be great.”

For Whitaker, the biggest challenge has been dealing with the academic fallout from the pandemic. He quickly realized just how far behind a lot of his students were after a year and half of not being in a classroom regularly. “While they have the body of a sixth-grader, academically they’re at a third-grade level, and many of my students are at a second-grade level,” he says.

Whitaker is also troubled by some of the inequities the pandemic has laid bare. While many of his honors students have tutors, the majority of his students don’t have access to those kinds of resources to keep them on track academically. That’s made him work even harder to catch everyone up, and seek out advice from other teachers and administrators.

And he’s had some success. “My students have gained confidence in math,” he notes, particularly the girls, many of whom assumed they’d be bad at the subject. “They’re starting to see that math ability isn’t catered toward one gender,” Whitaker says.

Both Whitaker and Davis have noticed another impact from the pandemic – students need to relearn social norms. Like Whitaker, Davis says she’s encountered some behavioral challenges from students, compounded in her classes by adolescent hormones. “They’re here for play and social interaction,” she says. “The last time they were in school was sixth grade, so being around all their friends, they’re more focused on each other.”

Despite the challenges, all three teachers feel good about the connections they’ve established with their students. “I get along very well with this age group in terms of personality,” Davis says.

Smith, too, says he loves that his students are enjoying him as teacher. “These students look up to me as a mentor or want to come talk to me about whatever might be happening in their lives,” Smith says. “A lot of times I forget this is a paying career that I do as a job, because I just love being here in this space.”

Toward the end of the semester, Whitaker attended the school band concert to support his sixth-graders who were playing. When it was over, one of them greeted him with a huge hug – the student didn’t have any parents there to watch and was thrilled to see the teacher there.

“That’s why I got into teaching,” Whitaker says. “Moments like that.”

His middle school teacher Mrs. Lewis would certainly agree.