04.13.21

Supporting Teacher Leadership in Fragile Communities

by Casey Bethel – Douglasville, Georgia

Casey M. Bethel headshot Casey M. Bethel is a 15-year high school science teacher and the K-12 Science/STEM Coordinator in Douglasville, Georgia, where he coordinates curriculum, resources and professional development for 34 schools. He is the 2017 Georgia Teacher of the Year and a runner-up for National Life-Changer of the Year. After losing his wife, Elise, who was a teacher, to breast cancer, Casey and his family founded the non-profit Pink Santa Hat Movement to support and uplift other educators around the country who are balancing their day-to-day school responsibilities while fighting this terrible disease. Here is his story.

Introduction

Fragile communities are the struggling pockets of society. The families live in the harshest conditions and find it extremely difficult to break the cycle. People in fragile communities desire better but it is saddening to recognize the tremendous obstacles they face. These areas are routinely barren of economic opportunities and are consequently the most crime-ridden. Where education could be viewed as the great medicine for both ailments, schools in these areas are often steeped in low performance. A smarter, more talented population would find better jobs or start successful businesses, avoid crime and turn things around. Consequently, teachers in fragile communities often see themselves as the “gate-keepers” to advancement.

Challenges

I can attest to this because it explains my entire teaching career. For 15 years, I have taught in one of the roughest metro-Atlanta neighborhoods. Ninety-nine percent of the students at my high school are students of color and 88 percent of them are economically disadvantaged. The community surrounding the school is marked by high unemployment and transiency.

As parents shuffle between apartment complexes taking advantage of discounted-rent offers and move-in specials, children bounce from school to school, robbed of consistency that is vital for academic success. Gifted students are sprinkled in but go on to impressive achievements and make good stories, but on average the school has performed near the bottom in eight out of eight state tests for 19 years. At one point the drop-out rate teetered near 50 percent. Even amid all this, I have never wanted to teach anywhere else.

These students need the most, and this place, to me, is the best one to make a difference in their lives.

Solutions

Three years ago, my family and I began the “Teach Your Heart Out Conference.” The goal of the conference is three-fold. First, we equip teachers with best classroom practices so that they can adequately teach all types of students in all types of environments. Second, we celebrate and uplift teachers in a way that fuels their passion and reminds them of the joys and possibilities in teaching. Every student, especially those in fragile communities, need teachers who believe in what they do and have the energy to do it well.

Finally, we empower teachers to see themselves as change-agents capable of crafting a healthier society through emphasis on vital issues such as equity and social justice. We get teachers believing that change, which starts in a classroom, can spread to and heal a community. To accomplish all of this effectively, we have enlisted a cadre of 23 award-winning, dynamic, focused, and driven teacher-leaders from around the country.

Outcomes

We held our inaugural conference three years ago in Atlanta to positively impact our own community first. We still maintain regular communication with the 400 teachers in attendance that affirm their inner batteries remain full with the energy and strategies learned at the convening.

We have now hosted conferences in Nashville, Houston, Las Vegas, and Miami, each time benefiting more than 400 teachers, and their students and communities by extension.

Our hope is to spread an infectious zeal for education with every community in America because only education can cure society’s ills.

Lessons for Educators

I have always been committed to seeing my community get out from under the dark cloud overhead. More recently, my experiences as the State Teacher of the Year have allowed me to grow as a teacher-leader in important ways that make me better for my community and those like mine.

Teacher-leadership has widened my vantage point and elevated my concern beyond just the school, and has helped me to develop the vision and courage to do more to address our challenges. I now have the privilege of traveling throughout my state and others. It is as helpful to witness other fragile communities and validate that my neighborhood is not alone, as it is to pinpoint what is missing when I am treated to glimpses of more fortunate areas.

Schools in struggling areas suffer because of the difficulty in retaining effective teachers and because those who stay get burned out from working in such a stressful environment. My teacher leadership is now manifested through the vision of what it would look like if every school housed teachers who were super-charged and enthusiastic about their jobs and have the courage to promote that vision. For the first time, I feel capable of doing something to spark positive, sustainable change.

This article originally appeared in the Center for Educational Opportunity’s white paper “A Sacred Space: 12 Expert Teachers Share Stories of Resilience, Success and Leadership.”