Published originally in the spring 2009 issue of Berea College Magazine
by Normandi Ellis
When Ali Duff, ’06 began her teaching career at Pendleton County High School (PCHS) in Falmouth, Kentucky, she never expected to find fellow Bereans in her own back yard. Even though Ali grew up just across the river from Pendleton County, it felt good to know that there were other Berea-trained teachers in her school to provide support.
She, like the other Berea teachers, brings a unique perspective to the classroom. “I’m told one of my greatest strengths is tying in my lessons with real-world applications and connecting these to my students,” Ali says. She acknowledges that the most important lessons cannot be measured by test scores. “If they go away learning a few things, great; but if they go away knowing more about who they are, then I feel like I’ve done my job.”
In Pendleton County, Ali finds herself in good company with teachers Michelle Lustenburg, Keith Smith, Andrew Coleman and Rebekka Bess. Each studies education at Berea and each brings a fresh approach to his/her teaching palette.
Michelle Williamson Lustenberg, Cx’90
Michelle is often seen on the Kentucky Education Television network promoting an “Art to Start” program that she and her students designed. The promotional clip features high school students helping younger students perform on stage. It is part of a monthly workshop that introduces preschool and primary school-aged children to the joy of creativity. It also gives the high school students an opportunity to learn how it feels to be a teacher themselves.
For the last 18 years, Michelle has worked as an arts educator, teaching gifted and talented students, just down the road from the small town of Rabbit Hash, where she grew up. The current president of the Kentucky Arts Education Association almost didn’t get the chance to follow her dream, but Mr. Burton, her high school social studies teacher, stepped in as a role model. “He called me up to his desk and said, ‘Miss Williamson, I want to give you something.’ He handed me the brochure for Berea College and told me I had a bright future. ‘You need to go to college,’ he said. “This is where you need to be.'”
Michelle attended Berea, taking primarily education courses, and then finished up her art studies at Northern Kentucky University. Having grown up and worked in this tight-knit community, she feels that her familiarity with students’ rural backgrounds givers her an edge. Most of her work with students takes place in an arts-enriched after-school program in which she teachers elementary, middle and high school students everything from forensic science workshops to drama and the arts.
Three years in a row, Michelle’s high school students have presented a creativity night at the Kentucky Associated for Gifted Education. Sitting in a room in Falmouth School Center, the students asked each other “How can we teach science more creative, or social studies?” and “What could a teacher have done that meant I would catch onto the subject more quickly?” The programs, many of them funded by grants the students have written, vary from year to year.
“What I try to do is give the kids ownership of their education, which means the gifted program is not the same every year. It’s what the students are interested in learning. It’s about what they want to try.”
Enthusiasm for learning and for the creative process is what keeps Michelle going and what she instills in her pupils. “If I’m energetic, they’re energetic. If I love to learn, they love to learn, and if I ever forget that, then I want to retire.” To remind herself of the power of that idea, Michelle keeps a note taped to her desk. It says: “When I sing, they sing along.”
Andrew Coleman, ’89
The U.S. history and political science teacher at PCHS describes himself as a down-to-earth kind of guy who throws a little life philosophy into his classroom experience. On the day I visit him, Andrew sits in a darkened room, directing his students’ attention to the film being shown, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, based on the book by Mitch Albom. “Listen up, people,” he tells his students. “I love this quote.”
A student in the dark asks Mr. Coleman if he has ever cried while watching this movie. He shrugs and says casually, “I’m a sensitive guy.”
His teaching philosophy is just as personal and soulful as the move he watches with his students, as exemplified by the guiding principles that he uses to teach his students: “You make your own heaven on earth” and “There’s no time to go through life with a chip on your shoulder.”
The students clearly like Mr. Coleman; he feels the same way about them.”I find the students here very well-grounded. They still say ‘thank you,’ ‘please’ and ‘you’re welcome.'” Having taught in the Pendleton County school system for 16 years, he finds that the community support makes things click. “Overall.” he says, “the community, students and teachers realize we’re all in this together.”
Andrew grew up in the rural community of Falmouth. Farm work was not to his liking, so he pursued history education at Berea. Whenever he or his students meet a challenge, Andrew is quick to encourage them and himself with a little home-grown philosophy: “It’s better than slopping hogs.”
Keith Smith, ’88
Keith Smith comes from a long line of educators, which includes 15 teachers. His aunt, Glenna Valentine, 55, encouraged him to consider Berea College. While working toward his business administration degree, Keith worked in the athletics department. He says that Coach Ronald Weirwille, Coach Mike Ross and athletics manager, “the Seabury legend Elvin Combs” influenced his decision to work with students after graduation.
Twenty years ago Keith began teaching marketing and business courses at PCHS, the high school from which he graduated. Eventually he moved into a job at the alternative school. He loves working with these students who need his help in getting their second chance at succeeding in high school. He spends his time helping them to develop a plan for student success and putting hope back into each life. “I have to convince them that what happens to them 20 years from now is more important than what they want to do in the next hour.”
He enjoys having a chance to be a positive role model for students. “It used to be that fathers and sons worked on the farm or went hunting together. In this way, a father passed on his knowledge.” Keith feels saddened by the lack of male role models for many growing boys. “Every young person’s life is special,” he says, and he encourages parents to spend more time with their children.
Through his work in athletics training and student coaching, Keith saw that, especially for young men, a physical education was part of gaining an overall education. “We do a disservice to young boys who are asked to sit in desks all day and learn. We ask them to learn in a setting that does not best fit the way boys learn.” Young men, he says, need movement activities, like hunting, biking and athletics. In addition to his teaching schedule, Keith coaches both men’s and women’s soccer, basketball, slow-pitch softball and golf.
What makes his work so important, Keith says, is giving a second chance to students who need one. “Seeing those students grow up to give their children positive experiences makes it all worthwhile.”