At just 28 years old and in only his fifth year as a full-time teacher, Ebenezer Middle School’s Mark Weese is making an indelible mark on Effingham County students.
Weese, a seventh-grade life science teacher at EMS, is this year’s Effingham County teacher of the year.
“Whenever I do something, I want to be the best at it that I can,” Weese said. “I put all my energy into everything I do.”
Weese asks the same of his students.
One of the quotes displayed on Weese’s classroom walls is, “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” The quote is from Steve Prefontaine, a legendary runner who held the American record in seven distance events.
Weese, a distance runner himself, teaches four periods of life science each day. While he knows some students are more interested than others in science class, he wants them all to “think as scientists” when they are in his classroom.
“For 70 minutes a day, I tell them to do their best and put all their efforts into it,” Weese said, “and then hopefully that’s a skill that they carry on to anything they do. It goes beyond just science, to their character in general.”
To build his students’ interest in science, Weese incorporates real-life lessons into his teaching. In a study of the fungus kingdom, for example, students examined actual molds, which they then would be able to identify the parts of, if they saw mold growing on a kitchen counter.
Weese said several parents have told him that their children reference his class as part of everyday life. Also, Weese has a bulletin board in his classroom for his students to display any pictures of them “experiencing science” outside the classroom.
“A student brought in a caterpillar she just found in her yard and we had a whole 15-minute discussion on it, and we applied it to what we’re learning in class,” Weese said. “That’s the neatest thing, when outside of my classroom they’re using what I’ve taught them. If you can give them real examples and relate the material to them, that’s what makes them excited about it and why they want to learn that material.”
He added, “I think the most rewarding thing is when they come into my classroom and they have their heads down and they’re not really enthusiastic …. But then, as soon as the science class starts, we start discussions and they ask questions, and then, once the bell rings, as they’re walking out of the classroom, they’re still talking about it.”
Weese acknowledges some of his teaching methods are unconventional. He said he opens each of his lessons with a personal story, an article or a reflective question, and he lets the students “take it from there.”
Textbooks tend to sit unused on the shelf, as students instead engage in topical conversation or participate in hands-on laboratory lessons. Weese tries to speak in terms his middle-school pupils can relate to, often using the “grossest things” as examples in a science lesson.
“Standing up on my chair as I teach, the kids wonder, ‘Why is he standing on his chair?’But they’re all quiet because they want to know why I’m standing on my chair,” he said.
Weese does not take all the credit, though, for his success in reaching and motivating students. Although his classroom door is always shut during class — “I have them for 70 minutes, and I want them totally engrossed in what we’re learning about” — he welcomes observers in his classroom. By the same token, he has learned a great deal from other teachers at Ebenezer Middle.
“I’m just collecting from the best,” he said. “I feel like my teaching style is just bits and pieces of the best in Effingham, and trying to put it all together.”
Weese collaborated with the other two life science teachers at Ebenezer to develop the school’s first remediation and enrichment program. Every seventh-grade student is evaluated at checkpoints throughout the year, and support is given to students who have not yet mastered the essential concepts. To help the students, Weese offers after-school tutoring in a relaxed environment, including snacks.
“As evidenced by the performance of the students on the CRCT (Criterion-Referenced Competency Test) for the past five years, this method of instruction has been successful,” said EMS principal Amie Dickerson. “Ebenezer Middle School seventh-grade science is ranked in the top 10 percent of the state.”
Growing up, Weese had two major influences who showed him the importance of education. The first was his mother, a first-grade teacher.
The second was Matt Johnson, a biology teacher and Weese’s cross country coach at Collins Hill High School in Suwanee. Weese said he often stayed after school to help Johnson clean his “classroom of wonder,” which included fish tanks with different marine and freshwater habitats and a replication of a tropical rainforest that included a live, three-foot iguana.
However, Weese said he learned even more from Johnson outside the classroom. Johnson was a leader in Fellowship of Christian Athletes and served as a mentor to Weese.
“I realized that I was surrounded by numerous blessings and that I wanted to dedicate my life to share those blessings with others around me, just as Coach Johnson had done for me,” Weese said.
Even with those role models, Weese did not initially pursue a career in education. He opted to study pre-dentistry and run cross country at the University of Georgia.
However, he decided he wanted to be on a smaller campus — and become a teacher. He transferred to Georgia Southern University, where his two older brothers were enrolled and Weese said he could graduate from “the best teaching program in the state.”
While at GSU, Weese did his student teaching at Ebenezer Middle School. He enjoyed the experience so much that, when he was pursuing a full-time teaching job in 2008, his first choice was Ebenezer Middle.
Weese said he was offered a job at the end of his interview with then-principal Ramona Lovett, and he readily accepted it. Along with his teaching duties, he said, “they threw football, track and basketball at me, so I coached all three of those sports my first year — as well as getting my master’s degree.”
However, that reinforced the lessons he had learned to give his time to others. He has continued to do that as Ebenezer Middle’s seventh-grade field trip coordinator and an academic team leader for the seventh grade.
Also, Weese was one of only three life science teachers in the state chosen to write lessons for the new Common Core Georgia Performance Standards. He was trained to incorporate writing and reading across the curriculum, and he published modules for teachers across the country to use in conjunction with the curriculum changes to the new National Literary Standards.
“His willingness to dedicate time and energy to this initiative is indicative of his care and concern for all children,” Dickerson said.
Last year, Weese began an after-school running program for Ebenezer Middle students and staff, as well as any children and adults in the community. Four days a week, participants run along different trails in Rincon and Springfield, with each setting personal goals to meet.
“The children learn life lessons in perseverance and sacrifice through the program, as well as enjoy the team building and unity of people that share the same interests,” Weese said.
“True educators are those individuals who recognize that teaching involves more than just facts and figures,” Dickerson said. “Mr. Weese’s willingness to work with children in a variety of ways outside of the classroom affords him the opportunity to serve as a positive role model for all students within the school setting.”
Weese plans to continue doing that at Ebenezer Middle for years to come. While some teachers who have accomplished so much in such a short period of time might look to move on to new challenges at a different school, Weese considers EMS home.
“I love it here,” Weese said. “I never want to leave Ebenezer. I never want to leave (teaching) seventh grade. I just want to be right here.”
Considering Weese’s commitment to his students, it’s safe to say he has met — and will continue to meet — one of his goals.
“I want the kids to remember me as their teacher after they leave the seventh grade,” he said.