Bernetha Culbreath doesn’t tolerate much bird-walking in her classroom, though she still lets her students stretch their wings and explore.
But bird-walking, the term she’s coined in her gifted and talented classes for when intellectual curiosity turns into fruitless fluttering from topic to topic, isn’t conducive to learning. Exploration is key to learning, but Culbreath said it takes some discipline to keep things focused and productive.
“I’m not confined to a certain schedule,” she said. “I don’t have to teach reading from 8:45 to 9:30 or whatever. As long as I’m accomplishing what I was given to accomplish, I can do pretty much anything we want.”
The gifted and talented program gives the 35-year teaching veteran the breathing room to craft lessons that blend multiple subjects and disciplines while leaving room for students to explore their own interests. It’s the kind of freedom that allows her to have her class programming and building robots, or partnering with Uptown’s management on the “Tweet on Main Street” art project.
“I don’t like teaching in isolation because I don’t like to learn in isolation,” she said.
It takes a team of open-minded and resourceful educators to handle the gifted and talented program, and Anne Marie Glawe who teaches the program’s class at Springfield Elementary said the program’s director, Cathy Chalmers, has chosen talented teachers for the program. They consider themselves a family.
“We all do our job in our particular schools, but we actually call ourselves the GT sisters,” Glawe said. “When you’re teaching GATAS, you have to be really open-minded because these students are in the 90th percentile. They’re going to be solving the 21st century problems; they’ll be designing the next big medical breakthrough.”
Culbreath’s more than three decades in education have helped craft her philosophy for teaching, but when she was just starting after getting her bachelor’s degree in early childhood education from Lander, she was thrown into the deep end early. Her first job at a school in Newberry County had her teaching 27 first-grade students who were all repeating the grade.
“That was different,” she said with a pause. “I was learning and taking things a little slower to feel it all out, and I think that helped them, too.”
None of those students failed her class, and after three years in Newberry Culbreath came back to Greenwood and started working in kindergarten at Pinecrest.
“It was a lot of fun, but back then it was a split day,” she said. “I had a group of 30 in the morning, then another 30 in the afternoon.”
She would make the move to teaching first grade, a field she was a little more comfortable in than kindergarten, but having children of her own helped her realize the job demanded hours of her that she’d rather devote to her family.
Or, as Culbreath put it, “After that, I went to prison.”
She left public education, and took a job teaching literacy classes at Leath Correctional Institution, where she would work for a decade.
“I got to see a different side of education there,” she said. “I got to see people who were in education not because they had to be but because they wanted to.”
While there’s a level of vigilance everyone working in the prison system needs to have, Culbreath said she treated these women less like inmates and more like people seeking simply to better themselves. By giving them respect, she heard from them stories about why they quit school. Quickly, she realized most of those women had been discouraged at some point by teachers or others telling them they were too dumb or that they couldn’t learn.
“I listened to their stories about how school failed them, and it made me realize that we need to fix these kids and take a different approach here,” she said.
After the adult education program she worked in was disbanded, Culbreath returned to public education teaching second grade at Pinecrest, a job she’d hold onto for more than a decade. She’s always looking for new opportunities, however, and took time to get National Board certified and trained in teaching gifted and talented, a program all three of her daughters went through.
Culbreath’s strength comes in her electrifying classroom presence and in emphasizing that there’s no end to the learning process, Chalmers said. Her inquisitive nature and critical thinking skills made her a great choice for the gifted and talented program, and she passes on to her students that desire to constantly question and dig deeper.
“She just brings so much energy and excitement to the classroom, and that’s what hooks kids and makes them want to learn,” Chalmers said. “She’s great at finding students’ different learning styles and teaching to each of those.”
The stakes are high, and that’s something Culbreath understands well from working with prisoners who were discouraged from learning. She’s motivated to inspire her students by a desire to steer their lives in the right direction.
“Teaching has to be your passion,” she said. “If you don’t have it, you’re going to be miserable and the children you teach are going to be miserable. You are affecting so many children, and the things you say can make or break a kid.”