By Susan Riddell
Johnny Belcher isn’t one for the lunchroom.
The Pikeville High School (Pikeville Independent) calculus and physics teacher routinely takes his lunch tray back to his classroom. Typically, he’s followed by a handful of students who want some extra tutoring.
“That’s every day,” Principal Michael Rowe said. “He says ‘hi’ to me in the lunchroom, and then he’s back in his classroom tutoring.”
Superintendent Jerry Green has witnessed the same thing. “Most afternoons I’m over (at the high school), I see him hanging around until about 6:30 or 7 p.m. at night helping students,” Green said. “He’ll have former students call from college, and he helps them, too.”
That commitment to his students is just one of many reasons Belcher was awarded the Milken Family Foundation National Educator award last week. The award comes with an unrestricted $25,000 financial award. Belcher is the lone Kentucky recipient this year.
In his 15th year of teaching, all at Pikeville High, Belcher serves as the department chair and instructional supervisor in mathematics for grades 7-12. He also is a member of the Mathematics Leadership Network (MLSN) and has contributed to the development of end-of-course exams in geometry.
“The MLSN and my work with end-of-course exams have exposed me to many other educators,” Belcher said. “In this regard these two professional development activities have been invaluable. I learn most from being in the classroom and secondly from others’ experiences and ideas.”
His ability to gauge where his students are academically is well known.
“He’s known for his ability to meet kids where they are at,” Rowe said. “He’s a strong believer that there are multiple ways to solve a problem. His philosophy in the classroom is reaching each kid individually and making sure each one gets to where they need to be.”
“He uses instructional techniques that address multiple learning styles, and he allows students to continue to work until they master concepts,” added teacher Rebecca King, who has taught at Pikeville High since 2004 and was a Milken recipient in 2003 while teaching at the former Whitesburg High School in Letcher County. “Mr. Belcher holds both himself and his students to a high standard.”
Belcher said he is guided by what his students will have retained from his class years from now.
“Be a model for learning is my main goal every day,” he said. “I want my students to understand it’s okay to not know something. What’s not okay is to quit there. I just keep trying to give that message over and over again.
“There are times I will not even prep myself for a concept so they can see some of the metacognitive thoughts that go on,” Belcher added. “They know it’s okay not to know at times. How can I piece this together, make a mystery not a mystery? With learning I try my very best to take away the excuses.”
Belcher said his teaching style has evolved in his 15 years at Pikeville High, thanks in part to formative assessment.
“That’s one of the biggest things I have changed in my teaching,” he said. “Adding the option for students to retest has a little bit of standards-based slant to it. It’s not full force standards-based grading, but it’s all about students learning the material regardless of what it takes to get there.
“Math is something students tend to struggle with. It can be a real confidence-shaker,” he added. “So the idea of formative assessment and the option of retesting and things like that kind of evolved for me in the classroom. In terms of the tutoring and spending time with kids in the classroom, I’ve always tried to do that. But being a math teacher, it’s important to keep the students’ confidence in mind. Sometimes that’s forgotten, but I think I’ve gotten better about remembering that.”
Belcher said, depending on the topic, he has found success in returning tests to the students with the answers worked out. It then becomes the students’ job to dig further into the problems and earn partial credit by giving feedback that shows they understand the concepts.
“They actually kind of barter for that with me individually,” he said. “It’s all about pushing them to the next level.”
That’s something Belcher hopes for himself, too.
“The one thing about an award like this is it’s bittersweet,” Belcher said. “Every teacher deserves such recognition. We’re not working toward awards like this; we are working toward our students. It is really a wonderful thing though to be recognized. It helps to fuel your next moves.”
Johnny Belcher, firstname.lastname@example.org, (606) 432-0185