Why Haywood – Tracy Cheney – HMS

Coming on the heels of two fractured school years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of educators are considering a new career.  According to a poll conducted by the National Education Association in January of 2022, 90% of its members surveyed said that feeling burned out is a serious problem.  

On a macro level, educators are critical to the continuing success and development of our country as a whole.  On a micro level, finding and retaining teachers in Haywood County who want to teach in the community and invest in the lives of students is of the highest importance to the district.  Without passionate teachers, the plans and programs of a district would be null and void no matter how innovative those plans and programs are.  

In West Tennessee, there are multiple districts in need of teachers that are within driving distance of Haywood County.  Outside of the world of education, there are companies and job opportunities available in abundance.  So, what keeps our teachers in Haywood County?

Haywood Middle School teacher, Tracy Cheney, is a veteran teacher of over 20 years.  She spent the majority of her career in Memphis/Shelby County schools, but realized that she needed a different professional setting.  After taking some time off, she spent one year in Jackson before finding a place that feels very much like home in Haywood County.

Throughout her teaching career, Tracy hasn’t always taught middle school, but since she’s been in the middle school setting she cannot imagine teaching another grade level.

I sat down with Tracy, and we discussed her early aversion to Math, her desire to be a pilot, and why the pull of Haywood County was strong enough to make her sell her home outside of Memphis and relocate to Brownsville.  You can hear our full conversation on Tomcat Talk by clicking this link.  Below are some highlights from our conversation.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I got into teaching because of my family background; my father was a principal and my mother was a teacher.  I’ve been in that environment for a long time and understood the ins and outs of education.  I’ve got a masters plus 45 in education, and my undergraduate background was in family studies, so it was a natural transition.

I really work to try and help others be the best version of themselves. I try to be a facilitator and guide my students through learning about the curriculum, but also learning about themselves.

My personal goals had never been centered around being an educator; I wanted to be a pilot.  Because I had vision problems and because women weren’t allowed to be military pilots for a long time, I gave up on that dream.  I do fly privately every now and then, though.  I’m working on getting my pilot’s license.  I’ve always told my students that when I grow up, i want to be a pilot.

I come from an elementary school background when it comes to teaching which actually lends itself to me teaching middle school now.  I can take my students through the process of learning throughout the continuum of their schooling.  I love teaching middle school…much more than teaching elementary school.

What grade level do you teach?  

I teach 7th grade math and I absolutely love it.  I would not want any part of kindergarten or first grade.  Early Elementary teachers: I applaud all of you.  

What is the most challenging part about teaching?

I could actually break this apart into two phases.  The most challenging aspect during my entire career is how to effectively transition and get knowledge to carry over year to year.  A lot of times, I have to reteach a lot due to learning loss over the summer or the COVID-19 pandemic.  

As teachers, we’ve all dealt with the retention deficit that occurs every summer break.  I think it’s challenging to find ways to address that.  One thing we do here at the middle school is offer classes over the summer that are designed to maintain their learning.  

What is the most rewarding aspect about teaching?

The smiles when they get it or understand something I’ve taught them.  Students looking at their own data and seeing their progress and getting them more intrinsically motivated to learn themselves.  That’s so rewarding for me.  I’m handing the education over to them and that’s rewarding.

As long as students can see the results of their efforts frequently, they can take ownership of their learning.

What aspect of your personality do you feel students connect with the most?

My sarcasm  (laughing).  There’s no shortage of that.  It’s boxed and packaged neatly some days on my desk (laughing).  It’s always in kindness; I keep it light.  It’s never harmful. A lot of time it’s to keep the flow of the class going and keep their attention.

What is something about you that your students would never guess?

This is tough to answer.  I pretty much share everything with my kids about who I am outside the classroom.  They know my son just graduated from college; they know I have a dog named Misty.  My life is an open book for them.  It builds trust and opens communication lines.  

One thing they may not know, though, is that I spent time living and working in Russia in 1996 as part of a teacher exchange program.  I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world.  

Was there an educator along the way that influences the way you teach or inspired you to be an educator?

I had several great experiences as a student; I had few really bad ones, too.  I think the really good educators I had really buffered me against the bad ones.  

One example I tell my students even now is that I had a horrendous fifth grade math teacher.  I couldn’t understand how she taught math and she showed up at my house one night to complain to my parents about how bad I was at learning math.  She was not kind.  This discussion took place in front of me.  My dad asked her one question: “What are you doing to help my daughter?” and my teacher couldn’t answer that.   From that point on, I struggled with math until I was in college.  I try to do everything I can to help my students who are struggling because I know how it feels to not get it or understand the material; I know what that feels like.  I can empathize.  

Why Haywood?

I was with Memphis/Shelby County schools for 25 years.  I did a year stint in Jackson after that and that turned out to be a shadow of Shelby County Schools.  It wasn’t good for me.  I realized I was in a copycat situation that wasn’t going to be healthy for me.  After a year, I left.

A lot of people started talking to me about Haywood, but I didn’t know anything about Haywood County other than that they always beat EVERYBODY around here in football.  

I heard there were some openings and applied online.  Very quickly, I got a call to come for an interview.  I came over here and this was the friendliest, most welcoming atmosphere I’d ever experienced.  I was taken aback by how welcoming and open and friendly the administration is here.  They will stop at nothing to make sure you are having the most secure experience possible.  

This district should be a model for other districts to follow.  Yes, we’re small town, but what the district is doing is unlike any other district around here.  

Things were going so well here that I moved to Brownsville.  I moved from Arlington to here and I’m not someone who likes change.  It was a leap of faith that was grounded in the fact that I knew I would have a support system in HCS that would not let me down.  

There is no other place I would recommend.