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New teacher makes self, others comfortable

Half a year in, new teacher Julia Bethe is flourishing.

Dec. 24, 2012
Orange River Elementary School Third grade Teacher...
Orange River Elementary School Third grade Teacher...: Julia Bethe is a first-year, third-grade teacher at Orange River Elementary School in East Fort Myers. Video by Sarah Coward
Julia Bethe and Anatauriah Griffin, 8, share a moment. / Andrew West/The News-Press
Julia Bethe's mentor says Bethe is great at handling kids. / Andrew West/The News-Press

Meet Julia Bethe

Age: 26
College: Southwest Florida College
School: Orange River Elementary
Position: Third-grade teacher

Orange River Elementary School 3rd grade teacher, Julia Bethe helps her student, Gabriel Porcayo-Solorzano,8, with a project on Tuesday 12/18/2012. / Andrew West/The News-Press


This is the second story in a series as we follow Orange River Elementary School teacher Julia Bethe through her first year in the classroom.

It’s the last week before winter break and the holiday spirit is seeping into every corner of Julia Bethe’s third-grade classroom.

For reading comprehension, her students breakdown “The Legend of the Poinsettia.” They follow that up by breaking out brown, red and green cardboard paper to design their own poinsettia cards.

“Ms. Bethe! Ms. Bethe” They each call for her, to ask a question or to show their work in hopes of receiving a compliment or sign of approval from the Orange River Elementary School teacher.

“I don’t even hear the ‘Ms. Bethe, Ms. Bethe’ anymore,” Bethe, 26, says with a laugh. “I think I tuned that out in the second week. They all want your approval for everything, and this has never changed. For every number they write down, every sentence or mark they do on the page, they want to show me. I praise them a lot for everything they do.”

It’s not unusual to see a crowd of five or six of Bethe’s students rushing to her for questions or approval.

“I try to do my best but sometimes it becomes overwhelming,” she said. “I tell them there’s only one of me and 18 of you. They love the recognition I give them, which is great, because they work for it and try very hard on everything they do. I don’t have any issues with bringing in homework, I mean once in awhile they forget it or something, but I think it’s because I praise them so much for their work, that makes them work even harder instead of threatening them.

Fitting in

Bethe, who is in her first year of teaching, said that since the first day of classes, everything has gotten much easier. Her students know what she expects of them and she understands them better. She no longer spends hours working on lesson plans and she’s become more flexible with her students.

(Page 2 of 3)

“I’m so comfortable teaching now,” said Bethe, who graduated last spring from Southwest Florida College. “In the beginning it was hard to start a conversation about what we were learning. I just didn’t know what they knew and how far we could go, and right now everything comes so natural.”

Bethe’s strongest point in the classroom is her relationship with students, said Kristin Cohen, Bethe’s peer teacher, mentor and a 2010 Golden Apple winner.

Before graduating, Bethe completed her student-teaching internship in Cohen’s fourth-grade classroom at Orange River.

“She naturally has that ability to home in on the students,” Cohen said. “She found out something special about my students that made her relationship with them unique. She was never competing with me with the students, she just took on a co-teacher role and just flourished.”

Cohen is certified to mentor and train new teachers and often receives interns from local colleges in her classroom.

“Julia comes across with a confidence in her students and co-workers that’s well beyond her teaching years,” said Cohen. “She can predict student behaviors, she has good timing, she’s prompt, she keeps her students engaged, her supplies are organized. Really the woman is amazing, and there’s nothing in particular she needs to work on except gaining more experience.”

But Cohen also said the one thing that stood out to her and what she advises all new teachers to do, is be humble enough to ask for advice.

“She’s not afraid to ask for help,” Cohen said. “Because if I looked at every new teacher from a distance they all look like they know what they’re doing. When a teacher is humble enough to recognize they have a deficit in an area and they go to a peer teacher … she will not wait to get better, she’s humble enough to ask for help and whatever it takes.”

Peers' praise

Bethe said there’s plenty she still needs to learn, and she’s always asking advice from the more experienced teachers.

“I still don’t have those resources all the other teachers have from years of teaching,” she said. “I’m building that up. When it comes to the holidays, they have tons of activities and they share a lot with me, but I want to find my own, too.”

(Page 3 of 3)

While Bethe said she no longer spends a large amount of time completing weekly lesson plans, she can sometimes be found working at school until 8 p.m.

“I get home too late,” she said. “And I’ve become such an old woman, because I go to bed at 9:30 or 10 p.m., which is so horrible.”

Orange River Principal Holly Bell said it’s not unusual for new teachers to spend their time building lessons and plans, and she encourages her new teachers to not stay in school so late.

But Bell said she’s more amazed by how well Bethe has been able to adapt to challenges that most teachers don’t receive training in — working in a high poverty school with a large number of non-English speaking families.

“I think that’s one thing they can’t teach ... in college,” said Bell. “Teachers in schools like Orange River, that are Title I, have a huge number of families that don’t have anything. It shocks our seasoned teachers who move here from other districts and states, the need is so overwhelming that you can’t take care of everyone’s needs. Julia has come in and is empathetic and compassionate, making them all feel that they’re just as special to her as the other guy. It doesn’t matter what they have or don’t have at home.”

Title I is a federal grant program that benefits children from low-income families.

Bethe said her students have become more comfortable with talking to her about their home lives, and she recognizes that for many of them she may be the only stable person in their lives. The one day she was home sick from school she worried about her students.

“They come to me and tell me so many private things, and they hug me all the time,” said Bethe. “It’s such a nice feeling in here. I always joke we’re a family.”

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