KOKOMO, Ind. — As a teacher, Brayton Mendenhall wants his classroom to be a place 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 kid,’ that’s the ultimate. When they know they can come to my class and they will be cared about and loved, whether they learn French is important, but it’s not the number one thing in my classroom.”
Mendenhall’s dedication to his students, as well as 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 an exciting adventure, and I’m excited to have made it that far in the selection process,” said Mendenhall, B.S. ’11. “It’s validating. It makes me feel like I’ve achieved something.”
While the last 21 months has been challenging as a teacher because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mendenhall says focusing on the connections he makes with students are what keeps him in the profession.
“If teachers allow themselves to define success in the numbers (test scores), that’s what’s going to burn them out,” he said. “It’s always about the kids. If I focus on why I went into teaching, I don’t see myself getting burned out. I don’t think I could leave the classroom to become an administrator because I love the connections with the kids. I love to watch them grow, and see them get excited. They become my kids after all the years we have together.”
The positive environment provided by his school also plays a role. “I’m in a place where diversity is celebrated, where the student and teacher relationship is important, and teachers are respected,” Mendenhall said. “I’ve felt supported here. I feel like I understand the reason why we do things. It’s a school that cares about the student as a whole, and not just about the numbers or the curriculum. There’s a whole student mentality at Ben Davis that has kept me going and kept me in education.”
It’s especially important to him to provide the role model he wished he had as a teenager.
“Being an out gay teacher is very important to me,” he said. “In high school, I had nobody to look up to. There was nobody like me in my high school. I want students to see you can be gay, you can be successful, and you can be respected by your peers. There are students who are trapped in those situations, and they don’t feel like they have anybody.”
Mendenhall didn’t take a direct path into being a French teacher — he first enrolled at IU Kokomo after graduating from Taylor High School in 2000, as a 21st Century Scholar. After one semester, he dropped out and worked as a color guard instructor in the area. He learned from that experience that he enjoyed teaching, so when he returned four years later, he enrolled in the School of Education. He chose secondary education, with a focus on English, after testing out of all the French available at IU Kokomo at that time.
He’s grateful to have earned a degree close to home, and for the relationships he built with faculty like Karla Stouse and Terri Bourus.
“My interactions with my professors really helped me,” he said. “I was able to make real connections with them, and they really encouraged me. It’s something I probably would have missed out on at a larger campus. This kind of school is conducive to those in-depth, personal relationships.”
He went to England with Stouse for the Innovation Symposium, and repeats her wisdom about grades with his own students now.
“She told us constantly, ‘It’s not always about the grade, it’s about the learning,’” he said. “She’s the kind of teacher I want to be. It’s all about the relationships with the students, and pushing them to think and grow.”
After graduating in 2011, he accepted 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 worked out eventually,” he said. “I took the long way around to teaching French. I tell my students, the path you have laid out before you, the idea that you are going to graduate and study exactly what you want to study, and get a job right away, it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes you have to make your own path. As long as you keep focused on doing what you love, it will work out.”