Heritage and Maryville High School seniors who plan to become teachers gave the governor their thoughts on recruiting and retaining educators this week.

Dru Williams and Emma Hettmansberger attended a luncheon at the Tennessee Residence along with Elisabeth Bellah, of Sam Houston Elementary School, who serves on the governor’s Teacher Cabinet.

Half of Tennessee’s 65,000 public school teachers are expected to retire or leave the classroom for one reason or another over the next decade, so this quarterly meeting of the Teacher Cabinet focused on making teaching a more attractive profession.

The greatest tool Tennessee has for recruiting future teachers may be those currently serving in the classroom. All three women cite outstanding educators who inspired their career choice.

For Emma, it was Lois Gregory at Foothills Elementary School. “I was actually retained the second-grade year,” Emma explained. “I wasn’t quite ready.”

But Gregory invited her to come to the classroom early and choose her seat. “She really engaged me and made sure I was comfortable,” Emma said.

As a child Emma would play school with a little white board in her room and call her younger brother, Ethan, in to read books.

She is planning to major in elementary education and minor in teaching English because of the state’s growing Hispanic population and her love for learning Spanish.

Dru, who plans to teach math, used to line up stuffed animals to be students when she was a child.

At the luncheon, she said, the teachers told about loving when they see students grow and when they see the spark of understanding in them. The teachers’ frustration, she said, often comes when circumstances in students’ home lives keep them from being interested in learning.

Although some people have tried to convince Dru to choose a career that pays better than teaching, she said, “I don’t care about making a lot of money.” She is driven by the passion for helping students.

Among her role models are her mother, Mimi Williams, who taught math before becoming an assistant principal at Heritage High.

Another is her freshman math teacher, Phyllis Pompeo. “She really pushed me to see where math came from,” Dru said. The teacher’s influence extended beyond the classroom, and the student said Pompeo taught her how to grow as a person and live life to the fullest.

“I had so many wonderful teachers, and my mother was a teacher for 20 years at John Sevier,” said Bellah, whose mother is Beth McArthur Ryburn.

One stands out, however. Bellah remembers the day she said, “I want to be just like Penny Talley,” and at Montgomery Ridge Intermediate School, Talley also taught Bellah’s daughter, Anne Lauren Bellah.

During the lunch, Bellah gave the governor and first lady her perspective on training educators.

“A program like (the University of Tennessee) is essential because it is a five-year program,” she said.

After practicum experience during the first four years, while working on their master’s degree in the fifth year UT students complete an internship.

“You start and end the school year in the same setting, and that’s essential,” Bellah said. “I feel like it should be mandatory.”

A nine-week experience doesn’t provide the full perspective, said Bellah, who is in her 21st year of teaching and has been at Sam Houston since 2005.

Bellah said Haslam continues to make education his top priority. “He sees that the future of our state is dependent on educating our children,” she said.

Inviting teachers and future teachers to the official residence, which is decorated with photos of visits by former presidents and entertainers such as Dolly Parton, also showed that the governor and first lady value teachers, Bellah said.

She said Maryville City Schools does a wonderful job of showing teachers they are appreciated.

“Teachers are valued in this community,” she said.

HHS teacher Melissa Bennett also serves on the Teacher Cabinet but was unable to attend the event Wednesday.

In the spring Education Commissioner Candice McQueen plans to meet with middle and high school students across the state to encourage them to consider a career in education. The effort is part of the “Teach Today, Change Tomorrow” initiative with the state Education Department and the nonprofit State Collaborative on Reforming Education.

Amy Beth earned her degree from West Virginia. She joined The Daily Times in 2016 on the education beat covering Alcoa, Maryville and Blount County school systems.

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