Teacher of the Year Anne Marie Bettencourt: "Our students want to know that we care about them.”

Anne Marie Bettencourt

Massachusetts Teacher of the Year Anne Marie Bettencourt shares her own experiences and challenges as she seeks to inspire her students to succeed.

The day before her teaching practicum started, the fear was daunting. “Tomorrow, I will look straight into the eyes of 30 students knowing that I am responsible for each and every one of them,” she wrote. So began the career of Anne Marie Bettencourt, as described in a journal entry to her advisor at Springfield College.

How, she wondered, would she ever become any good?

Seven years later, Bettencourt would be named the 2014 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year. Surrounded by the media, her cheering colleagues and education officials in the library of Springfield Central High School, the ninth-grade English language arts teacher, clearly touched, looked out at the hundreds of students who had crowded into the room to capture the moment and sign a giant card.

After that night of panic before she faced students for the first time, Bettencourt learned to survive — and then to thrive.

The road to competence, she acknowledged, is bumpy and fraught with difficulties — with hurdles often self-imposed, having to do with self-confidence and self-questioning. But then there are the moments of true satisfaction, such as the night she received the call from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to tell her she was being named Teacher of the Year.

“I think my jaw hit the floor,” she told MTA Today.

Bettencourt is the 52nd recipient of the award in the Commonwealth. At 31, she is among the youngest, and she credits her youth with helping her to engage with her students on a deep level.

Bettencourt is also happy to share the credit that comes with the honor. During the ceremony, she praised everyone at Central High School. She called the award “a representation of all the people who do the work together with me in Springfield.” She referred to “the old line that says, ‘Kids don’t care what you know until they know that you care.’” “I think that statement holds the most truth,” she said, “especially in Springfield. Our students want to know that we care about them.”

Frank Brown, one of her students last year, put it succinctly. “She doesn’t leave children behind,” he said.

For Bettencourt, that is more than just a statement.

Bettencourt, who moved to Northampton High School at the start of the new school year and is teaching the same subject and grade level she did in Springfield, was a facilitator for Central’s Ninth Grade Academy, begun about six years ago.

The academy uses a team approach to bring a laser focus to ninth-grade students, who are considered to be at their most vulnerable moment of development, a time when many are at risk of dropping out.

There are four ninth-grade teams, with 60 to 70 students on each. Last year, more than 90 percent of Bettencourt’s team successfully completed the year and went on to 10th grade, compared to roughly 50 percent of ninth-graders across the district, according to the DESE.

Bettencourt called the Ninth Grade Academy absolutely vital to the students’ success. Of the students who are not promoted to 10th grade, Bettencourt said, about half drop out, never graduating from high school. Springfield School Superintendent Daniel J. Warwick called Bettencourt’s work “truly remarkable.”

Her principal in Springfield, Thaddeus Tokarz, wrote in his letter of recommendation for the award that “teachers tend to love their subject, but Anne Marie lives hers.”

He said Bettencourt keeps her students engaged “in inquiry, striving for mastery themselves, and by leading and modeling civic engagement by participating in school-based events, coaching, and speaking out on issues of concern.”

Read 2013 Teacher of the Year Kathleen Turner's inspiring speech at the MTA Annual Meeting.

One reason she was attracted to urban schools, Bettencourt said, was “to fight all the negativity” about them in the media and elsewhere.

“I found that whenever you’d read any comments in the media, no one had anything good to say about urban schools,” she said. The common perception, she added, “seems to be that teachers in urban education are just warm bodies with a pulse.”

“And that’s just not true,” she continued. “And so there are a lot of truly great teachers doing phenomenal work not only in Springfield, but everywhere. And no one notices them. I never see them in the news. Or their students. Or their work.”

Her passion translates to her students, who use words like “absolutely amazing” to describe her and “lucky” to describe themselves. Frank Brown, one of her students last year, put it succinctly. “She doesn’t leave children behind,” he said.

Bettencourt grew up in New Bedford. As a writing teacher, she tells her students a lot about her life “because it gets them to share,” but for another reason as well. “We’re up here with the tie, a job … The students don’t possibly think we’ve gone through what we’ve gone through.”

So she tells her own story, which includes growing up in difficult circumstances and the eventual divorce of her parents. Her mother, a receptionist and waitress, was “gone all the time” when Bettencourt was growing up so she could work to pay the family’s bills. As a result, Bettencourt recalled, “I had all this freedom that I didn’t know what to do with.”

“Nobody was telling me why I should be in school, that I had to be in school, and I took full advantage of that as a 15-year-old kid,” she said. “I probably skipped about half the school year, just scraping by in ninth grade.”

In 10th grade, she said, she “met this fantastic English teacher.”

“He was really passionate about literature. He loved the way I wrote, and he told me so frequently on my papers. So I just loved to come to his class,” Bettencourt said. All of a sudden, she said, “I had a reason to come to school.”

The experience turned her around, and now she feels lucky to be able to do the same thing for her students. She went to Syracuse University with plans to become a screenwriter, but discovered that might mean “getting someone’s coffee.” Combining her love of literature and children, she eventually decided that education was a much better fit.

Like any busy teacher, she took on endless other duties at Central. She coached the girls’ tennis team, advised the Gay Straight Alliance and worked on the Shakespeare productions that are put on by students every fall. She served as a mentor teacher at UMass Amherst and at Springfield College. Over the summer, she attended a Red Sox home game and was the featured “celebrity” during pre-game festivities to promote literacy as part of the MTA Red Sox Reading Game and Most Valuable Educator program. She even found time to get married to her sweetheart, Abe Osheyack, Smith College’s sports information director, in July.

Her marriage precipitated the move to Northampton.

“I love Central and if the choice were only about me, I would teach there forever,”

Bettencourt said. “However, we are starting to think about a family in the next year. We plan to buy a house in this area, so it made sense to try to find a job as close to the area as possible.”

Bettencourt also said she believes “very much in being a part of the community where I teach.”

“As a single person, that was very easy to do in Springfield,” she said. “With kids and a 40-minute commute, it’s a little harder to do.”

Bettencourt’s continuing enthusiasm for Shakespeare was evident late last spring as she led her ninth-grade honors English class through “Romeo and Juliet.” She displayed mastery of her subject, an ability to translate the poetry of the text into language relevant to today’s ninth-graders, and the gift of extraordinary peripheral vision.

As the students acted out the balcony scene, she used humor to deepen their understanding. Her ability to overhear an unrelated comment from a student at the other side of the room amazed the rest of the class. At other times, her way of explaining the text in terms appreciated by today’s teenagers had the students dissolving in laughter.

By the end of the class, every single student was asking questions, yelling out answers or taking on one role or another. With energy and enthusiasm, the students became comfortable with the symbolism of the scene — the meaning of the sun, the moon, the snowy dove and the rose.

Of course, it wasn’t always like this. Bettencourt said that in her first year of student teaching, “I was horrible!” On her second observation, her supervisor told her, “I wouldn’t put my daughter in your class.” That, she said, “crushed me.”

“My management was not good. I was trying too hard to be the students’ friend,” she said. “I had eight weeks at that point to get better. It was eight weeks between that point and my final observation, and I said, ‘I’m not going to have that be his opinion of me when I leave.’

“I think that’s what a lot of first-year teachers go through. You want the kids to like you. The kids can love you, but they have to respect you — and you can have both.”

Bettencourt was so determined to become a good teacher that she poured her heart out as she wrote extensive journal e-mails to her Springfield College advisor, Daniel Zukergood, a veteran classroom teacher. The e-mails show her transformation from a struggling student teacher to an educator who found her voice and a level of confidence that allowed her to begin to change her students’ lives. The e-mails eventually were published by Pearson Education in 2009 as “Teaching in the Real World: Strategies to Survive and Thrive.”

As Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, Bettencourt automatically becomes the state’s choice for National Teacher of the Year. This school year, her voice will be heard at the State House and around the Commonwealth as she addresses officials, parents and students on the challenges and joys of teaching.