Gadsden County School District Teacher of the Year Randall Austin firmly believes in his mantra: Every day, every child, every chance.
And it’s that attitude that caused him to want to become a teacher in the first place.
Now in his second year of teaching at East Gadsden High School, Austin is a graduate of Valdosta State University in Valdosta, Ga., where he earned a degree in economics. After college, he ran a hauling company and learned how to run a landfill.
But after moving to Tallahassee with Charlotte, his wife of 4 years, Austin began mentoring a child through the Big Brother program. It was that experience that led him to enroll in the Educator Prep Institute at Tallahassee Community College. He completed the intensive program while holding down a full-time job, but says the experience was worth it, because he felt fully prepared to take on his first classroom appointment at Carter-Parramore Academy.
During his tenure at the school, Austin said he came to admire his students.
“Even though a lot of them were academically behind, they had a lot of heart,” he said. “They were thrown to the curb a million times and had hit rock bottom. They were ready to grow from that point on. I admire their courage.”
When Austin began teaching at East Gadsden, he found himself still running his classroom with a firm hand, the same strict guidance he’d given his alternative students at CPA.
But he soon learned that he was on a different playing field.
“I was strict the first couple of weeks,” he said, laughing. “But then I realized I didn’t have to be so (strict).” He added that the kids at EGHS are “great kids that are great to work with.”
But when he does have the occasional issue with a student, he remembers the struggle his first-year students had, and he’s reminded that everyone has come through different circumstances.
“Every now and then I go back to that first year and remind myself that these children had different experiences, and I must treat them fairly and as individuals as well,” he said.
Austin works hard to relate to his students and to allow them to relate to him.
“Each class has its own personality. Some are loud and some are quiet. I try to gear everything to the class as a whole,” he said.
He rewards his students for good behavior by giving them tickets each day for getting to class on time, completing assignments and good behavior. A winner, drawn at the end of each week, wins a prize of pencils, erasers, notebooks or even chocolate. But students can also lose tickets for bad behavior.
An innovative reward that Austin has come up with is his presentation of videos for his students. He shoots video of his students, himself teaching or even his two dogs, and sets the action to music, creating a music video. If a class exhibits good behavior, he shows them the video, and he said the students have enjoyed it so far.
“They like it because they connect with it,” he said.
Austin teaches Algebra I to mostly ninth graders, although he has some students from the upper grades as well. He also teaches an intensive math class. But he said he never really liked math as a student himself.
“I really struggled with it when I was a kid. When I was older, I came to understand it much better,” he said, adding that he has developed a unique way of understanding and breaking a problem down, and he’s able to pass that on to his students.
“I look at what I’m going to teach, and I start asking myself all kinds of questions, the kind of questions I know my students will ask,” he said. “As adults we sometimes forget how a child thinks. I go through the problems like that and that’s what drives my lessons.”
Austin strongly believes that as a teacher, he can never stop learning, and says he’s learned from his administrators, fellow teachers and students. He plans to earn his master’s degree, possibly in policy and research or educational leadership.
In the classroom, he wants to see more progress in his students’ scores from the first day of class to the last, and he wants all of his students to test at proficient levels. He’s been told the grades his current students make are great for a young teacher, but he’s striving for more.
“That’s not enough for me. I want higher numbers,” he said.
If selected as the state Teacher of the Year, Austin said his platform would include building stronger educational programs, providing more support for teachers and working with legislators to develop policies that will help achieve educational goals. He also wants to help establish a teacher evaluation program that is designed to teach and promote, rather than scare or be about job security.
Austin said he was quite surprised to learn he had been selected as TOTY.
“This is huge. It means a lot to me. I'm glad that I can represent what we're trying to do here at East Gadsden as well,” he said. “It feels really good to know you've got a group of people looking out for you, watching what you're doing. It's a huge honor, not only to be selected by my peers at this school, but by the district. If you would have asked me 3 years ago would I have been here in this position, I wouldn't have even known what to tell you. I am ecstatic. I am nervous. This is probably the biggest honor I've ever had.”
Austin said his students might be surprised to learn that he’s played the trumpet for more than 15 years, and played bass guitar in a rock band in his teens with the group, Jar. The group raised the needed funds to record an album called, “The Voices in My Head,” which they recorded in one weekend. He’s also into building freshwater aquariums and plastic models.
But what he wants people to remember is that kids are only human.
“A child is simply a child, prone to make mistakes, and they need to know you care,” he said.
Other candidates for Teacher of the Year included Dena Brockman of Gadsden Elementary Magnet, Shirley Commodore of Shanks Middle, LaTasha Porter of George W. Munroe and Sherrhonda Sailor of West Gadsden High.
Editorial Note: Articles on the Rookie Teacher of the Year and School-Related Employee of the Year will appear in an upcoming edition of the Times.
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