Elementary education major Zachary Bentley graduating into job at school he once attended

Zachary Bentley

Zachary Bentley graduated cum laude with a degree in elementary education and has accepted a position at Premier Charter School, the same school he attended as a child. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Zachary Bentley always found it a bit surreal each time he’d walk into Premier Charter School throughout the fall semester.

Bentley, an elementary education major at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, would pass through hallways he recognized from his youth and cross paths with teachers he’d once had when the school on Fyler Avenue in South St. Louis was known as St. Louis Charter School. He vividly recalled moments from his time in elementary school, like when one of his teachers was reading a poem to his class, and even spotted a piece of his old artwork hanging in one of the classrooms.

But rather than being caught in a time warp, Bentley was taking an important step toward his future, fulfilling the practicum requirement to earn his degree while working in a fourth-grade class at the school.

“It was pretty wild to come back in a teacher role,” said Bentley, who graduated cum laude and took part in commencement Saturday night at the Mark Twain Athletic Center. “The kids loved hearing that story of how I used to go there, and the staff still knew me. It was just really interesting to be with them as part of the actual team teaching.”

It was at Premier that Bentley first had the idea of going into education planted in his head by teachers who left an indelible mark on him. They saw he was studious and accommodating of his classmates and thought it might be a career that suited him.

“I’ve always been that kid that wanted to help kids – not copy, you can’t take my answers – but I’ll help you figure it out,” he said. “I always liked helping friends, and even if I didn’t know the kid, I’d be like, ‘Hey, I can help you with your homework. I’m just not going to do it for you.’ Middle school kids are just rushing to get their stuff done and just copy. I’m like, ‘No, but I’ll help you.’”

Becoming a teacher remained something in the back of his mind as he finished high school and enrolled at St. Louis Community College–Meramec to meet his general education requirements and earn his associate degree so he could transfer to a four-year institution.

He still wasn’t ready to choose education as his major, but he watched his older sister, Allie, studying to become a school psychologist as the first member of their family to attend college. He heard about her experiences observing in a school setting, and he decided it sounded appealing and worthy of more serious consideration.

He took a course at Meramec that had him observing teaching at different grade levels – middle school, elementary and high school. He also had a stint teaching fourth graders for Junior Achievement.

“It was just so fun,” Bentley said. “My mom was like, ‘You need to do this. You seem so happy with it.’ That was probably the biggest eye-opener.”

Bentley earned his associate degree and decided to pursue elementary education, choosing UMSL’s College of Education because, again, he’d heard good things from Allie, who had transferred there after starting at Webster University. He also thought the university provided the best value for a high-quality degree.

He received the Chancellor’s Transfer Scholarship when he enrolled at UMSL amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and while it made for an odd introduction, he found everything he was looking for in the program.

“I’ve had a great time at UMSL, and I met some really great professors,” Bentley said. “They’ve been helpful.”

He particularly appreciated Amber Candela for teaching math education, and Martille Elias for the lessons she provided about literacy, including how to teach kids phonics.

“Jerie Rhode has been an amazing clinical advisor for the teaching program,” Bentley said. “She’s been super helpful and just a really great professor.”

Rhode couldn’t help but notice Bentley’s enthusiasm for being in the classroom.

“Zach’s love of teaching sparkles in his eye,” she said. “He is never without a smile.”

Bentley’s first practicum experience came last spring at Premier Charter School teaching in a special education classroom, but the class size was small, something he attributed in part to the pandemic.

He was glad to get to experience a general education classroom this fall.

“It’s a little nerve-racking sometimes,” he said. “I have to remind myself, being within these walls I was as a kid, like, ‘I’m not a kid anymore. I’m teaching.’ I have to constantly tell myself while I’m learning from my clinical educator, I have to also be helping kids learn. Some days are hard, but it’s all a learning experience, and I’ve received a lot of good input from the other staff at the school, tips and tricks and things to help me out when I’m a first-year teacher.”

Bentley’s schedule has also allowed him to work as a substitute teacher on Fridays, which has given him a taste of being on his own in a classroom.

Now that he’s graduating, he’s been given the opportunity to continue subbing full-time at Premier Charter School in the spring semester with the expectation he will be able to move into his own classroom next fall.

“I really feel like I’ve learned so much about teaching,” he said. “I have so many takeaways. I can’t imagine how much more I’m going to learn just doing it and being there full-time. I’m really excited to start.”


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