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Speaking Their Language

Knox Central High School instructor named Tennessee Teacher of the Year. Byron Booker stands out not only for his classroom successes in helping students learn English, but because he helps evaluate other teachers and encourages them to embrace accountability.

Byron Booker of Knox Central High School was named Tennessee Teacher of the Year Thursday night in Nashville, and word of it might have spread to various corners of the world.

Booker teaches about 40 students in English as a Second Language classes at the Knoxville school, a passion that can be traced to his parents’ participation in an international exchange program since before he was born.

The award, given by the Tennessee Department of Education, was presented at the Renaissance Hotel in Nashville.

In the last three years, Booker has established a collaborative model with other teachers at Knox Central, where he goes into core academic classes with some of his English language learners. While a core academic teacher teaches content, Booker provides language support to his students. Usually, his English language learners will comprise about one-third of the class with the other two-thirds being regular students.

“It goes back to my childhood,” Booker said. “From the time I was a child, we had students and adults staying in our home from different countries. That was their way of bringing their world into our East Tennessee home. So I developed just a natural affinity for working with international students, and it kind of grew from that process.”

Booker acknowledged his parents, who attended the banquet, but he began his acceptance speech Thursday by crediting his high school freshman English teacher, Sherrel Feathers at University High School in Johnson City.

“An average student, I was simply one of numerous students who passed through her classroom,” Booker said. “It was the time that I spent in her classroom, the personal interest she took in a kid named Booker, which impacted my life so profoundly.

“She invested her time, and in doing so, inspired me to maximize my potential. Mrs. Feathers established dual pillars of excellence, which I have tried to translate into my career — high academic expectations and personal accountability.”

He noted that Feathers is still teaching today.

Booker will now be an entry in the national Teacher of the Year competition. The state Teacher of the Year is determined by gradually paring candidates from each school and school district in the state. Candidates are drawn from grade categories pre-K-4, 5-8 and 9-12.

Finalists are drawn from each grand division of Tennessee — East, Middle and West. Student achievement scores and value-added scores are part of the process. Various factors, including teachers’ own educational attainment, come into play. Education professionals look for the teachers’ dedication to students, and the finalists are interviewed.

Booker was chosen from three overall regional winners announced Thursday, the others being Jennifer Mangusson of Pleasant Hill Elementary School in Cumberland County, the Middle Tennessee winner, and Ann Turner Johnson of Munford High School in Tipton County, the West winner.

Other regional finalists on hand to pick up awards Thursday were Robin Epps of Lincoln Heights Middle School in Hamblen County; Alison Payne of Bradley Academy in Murfreesboro; Carol Stafford of Altruria Elementary School in Shelby County and Brittan Sutherland of Martin Elementary School in Weakley County.

Special finalists in mathematics and science were honored. They were Michael Brown of Montgomery Central High School and Phyllis Hillis of Oak Ridge High School in mathematics and Gail Schulte of Smyrna Middle School in science.

Booker stands out for another reason. He likes the new teacher evaluation process in the state, which has been controversial and represents a significant change that many teachers do not like. Booker is not only being evaluated, he is a lead teacher who is evaluating other teachers.

“So I have a little different perspective on it,” Booker said. “I like it. I like the idea that teachers are held accountable. I like the idea that we are evaluated every year. I like the fact that we have a rubric over different domains within the classroom, from planning to classroom environment to instruction to professionalism and just the whole breadth of this new evaluation model.

“I embrace it.”

Booker’s English learners come from 16 different countries.

“They’re learning English in many cases as a second or third or fourth language, depending on how many languages they speak before they arrive in the United States,” he said.

“I’m not sure they fully comprehend exactly what this award is. They were more interested in if I would be back in time for tailgating before the high school football game tomorrow night — and if they have a test tomorrow.”

He said there was no test scheduled.

“But we will have tailgating as kind of a cultural event for them,” he said.

The students enter public schools as immigrants or political or religious refugees and come from a variety of backgrounds, he said.

Booker’s teaching has become a way of life for him and his wife, Karisa.

“I try to educate the whole child,” he said. “Something my wife and I do almost as a ministry outside of school is to work with these families, trying to get them job-ready, trying to invite them to cultural holiday celebrations at our house. That’s as much a part of educating the child as what we do inside the classroom.”

2 replies on “Speaking Their Language”

Kudos Mr. Booker! You’re an inspiration for other teachers across our state and country — it’s inspiring to hear about your vision for your students, what leads you to do the work you do, and your appreciation for both the quantitative things your students need to learn and the qualitative things your students need to learn. Keep up the great work!

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