Teacher creates safe space for students to thrive: Indiana University Kokomo

KOKOMO, Indiana— As a teacher, Brayton Mendenhall wants his classroom to be a place where students feel like they can be themselves.

“I want my students to be able to speak French, of course, but at the end of the day, I also want them to know that I care about them,” he said. “When I hear from a student, ‘You made me feel safe, you made me feel loved’, or when a parent reaches out and says, ‘You were such a role model for my child. ‘, that’s the ultimate. When they know they can come to my class and we’ll take care of them and love them, that they learn French is important, but that’s not is not the most important thing in my class.

Mendenhall’s dedication to his students, along with his excellence in teaching at Ben Davis High School, Indianapolis, earned him recognition as one of the top 10 finalists for Indiana Teacher of the Year for 2022.

“It’s been an exciting journey, and I’m thrilled to have made it this far in the selection process,” said Mendenhall, BS ’11. “It’s validating. It makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something. »

While the past 21 months have been difficult as a teacher due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mendenhall says focusing on the connections he makes with students is what keeps him in the profession.

“If teachers allow themselves to define success in numbers (test scores), that’s what will wear them down,” he said. “It’s always about the children. If I focus on why I chose to teach, I don’t see myself burning out. I don’t think I could leave the classroom to become an administrator because I love the connection with children. I like to see them grow and see them get excited. They become my children after all the years we spent together.

The positive environment provided by his school also plays a role. “I’m in a place where diversity is celebrated, where the student-teacher relationship matters, and where teachers are respected,” Mendenhall said. “I felt supported here. I feel like I understand why we do things. This is a school that cares about the whole student, not just the numbers or the curriculum. There’s a whole student mentality to Ben Davis that kept me going and pursuing my education.

It is particularly important for him to provide the role model he wished he had as a teenager.

“Being a gay teacher is very important to me,” he said. “In high school, I had no one to look up to. There was no one like me in my high school. I want students to see that you can be gay, that you can be successful, and that you can be respected by your peers. There are students who are trapped in these situations, and they feel like they have no one.

Mendenhall didn’t follow a direct path to becoming a French teacher — he first enrolled at IU Kokomo after graduating from Taylor High School in 2000, as a 21st Century Seeker. After one semester, he dropped out and worked as a color guard instructor in the area. He learned from this experience that he loved teaching, so when he returned four years later, he enrolled in the School of Education. He chose secondary education, with an emphasis on English, after testing all the French available at IU Kokomo at that time.

He is grateful for graduating close to home and the relationships he has established with professors like Karla Stouse and Terri Bourus.

“My interactions with my teachers have really helped me,” he said. “I was able to create real bonds with them and they really encouraged me. It’s something I probably would have missed on a bigger campus. This type of school is conducive to these deep personal relationships.

He went to England with Stouse for the innovation symposium and now repeats his wisdom on grades with his own students.

“She was constantly telling us, ‘It’s not always about grades, it’s about learning,'” he said. “She’s the kind of teacher I want to be. It’s about relationships with students and pushing them to reflect and grow.

After graduating in 2011, he took a job teaching English and French at South Vermillion High School near Terre Haute. A year later, he was hired at Ben Davis High School as a French teacher and color guard instructor.

“What I always wanted to do was French and color guard, so it ended up working out,” he said. “I’ve come a long way to teach French. I tell my students, the path you’ve laid out in front of you, the idea that you’re going to graduate and study exactly what you want to study, and get a job right away, it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes you have to chart your own path. As long as you stay focused on what you love, it will work.

Education is KEY at Indiana University Kokomo.

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