This article appeared in the Summer 2018 edition of The Classroom Teacher.

Cherie Bales comes home to Denver City
and rekindles her love of teaching science

Cherie Bales has her feet firmly planted in West Texas. After being away from her hometown of Denver City for nearly 25 years, she moved back last summer looking for a fresh start. “I moved back to continue my teaching career in what I knew was a great school district and tight-knit community.”

The mother of three grown children and proud dog-mom of a miniature Schnauzer named Toby is glad to be back in her hometown. “I have the most beautiful swing in my backyard where I read, journal and throw balls for Toby to chase.” She also reconnected with Bruce Barrera, a friend from high school. She loves spending time with him and his twin daughters. “I guess you can say I actually have five children,” she said. Or maybe six, since her children often accuse her of loving Toby more than them — an accusation she will “neither confirm nor deny.”

Though she didn’t begin college until her youngest child started Mother’s Day Out three days a week, Bales has always known she would be a teacher. “Like so many teachers will tell you, I used to play school with my stuffed animals. I still remember pulling my stuffed frog, Fleegle, aside and working with him one on one as he was a struggling reader and needed the extra help,” Bales said. “I’m not sure why I made him a struggling reader, but I would read to him for hours. I still have him to this day, although he’s pretty worn out now.”

That love of reading led Bales to believe she’d become an English teacher, but her first job was teaching fifth-grade science. “I was terrified because science was never my favorite subject,” she said. That first year was a challenge. “There wasn’t really a curriculum to follow, so I was handed a textbook that had been used only as a resource and simply told to follow the TEKS and I would be fine. I spent hours researching the content and looking for meaningful lessons.

“The Science TAKS scores were low the year before I got there, so my goal was to do my best teaching and not worry about ‘THE TEST.’ More importantly, I wanted my students to learn to love science and to have fun,” she said. That approach worked. Her students’ TAKS scores went up over 20 percent. The next year, her school in Midland ISD became an “exemplary campus.” By her third year in the classroom, Bales was teaching fifth grade and acting as a science specialist, helping other teachers on her campus with lessons. 

After a stint in a self-contained classroom, Bales ended up at a junior high school and found her home. She initially taught seventh- and eighth-grade science, then spent three years teaching eighth-grade English. When she decided to leave Midland ISD after 12 years to return to Denver City, Bales also jumped at the opportunity to teach science again. 

This fall, she begins her second year as a science teacher at Bill Gravitt Junior High. The job is rewarding for more reasons than she can list, but Bales said one of the benefits is seeing a student who has always disliked science learn to love it by the end of the school year. She also loves when her students teach her something. “I think sometimes teachers want to come across as the experts and are afraid of learning from their students. I’m excited when my students know enough about
a subject and teach me something. We learn from each other and that’s special.”

Along with teaching science, Bales also helps with extracurricular activities. In Midland, she put together the yearbook for her school. In Denver City, she served as the junior high school cheerleading coach last year. “We had after-school practice and that was often the highlight of my day. Those girls worked so hard and it brought back memories of being the coach for my daughter’s cheer squad.”

Teaching has a lot of rewards, but it also has its challenges. Bales often wishes she had more time with students. “I have so many things I want to cover during a class period, but time often runs out.” Sometimes lessons take a back seat to helping struggling students. “There are days where you are the teacher, mom, dad, counselor, nurse and mediator because kids come to school with more on their minds than academics,” she said. “I learned early in my career that sometimes I’m the only positive thing that will happen to some of my students that day. There have been many circumstances in my career when I wonder what would’ve happened if a student didn’t reach out to me that day. That’s always in the back of my mind on the days I would rather stay in bed.”

Bales aspires to be the inspiration for her students that her teachers were for her. “I had wonderful educators who encouraged me to follow my dreams. Without those teachers, I’m not sure where I would be today.” As she works toward this goal, Bales recognizes that every child has a unique ability to learn. “The challenge of teaching is allowing each child to use his/her own strategies and capabilities. This involves getting to know each student individually and planning lessons around the different learning styles.”

Many students over the years have touched her heart, including one who struggled to pass the state’s standardized math test. Bales helped her overcome the difficult subject and was surprised when she returned a few years later to say thank you. “I was blown away because I didn’t realize I had made such an impact in her life.” The student gave her a framed copy of her high school graduation announcement that said, “Thank you for believing in me and being a big part of my education. I may not remember everything you taught me, but I will forever remember how much you loved and believed in me.” 

Moments like that are what make challenges easier to bear. And Bales says Texas teachers are facing plenty of challenges. From struggles with how best to serve special education students to lawmakers interested in linking teacher pay to standardized test scores, Bales thinks rules and regulations have taken many of the joys of learning away. “Programs aren’t given enough time to work,” and teachers aren’t given enough freedom to use their training and instincts to reach students and help them learn. Those are reasons why Bales says teachers need TCTA. “Teachers need to stand up and let their voices be heard, and TCTA empowers us to have a voice.”

As TCTA’s 2018-19 state president, Bales hopes to see membership grow. She especially hopes to recruit new teachers, getting them to recognize the benefits of TCTA like she did as a student member at Angelo State. “New teachers often think they won’t need a teacher organization because they don’t foresee themselves doing anything wrong. What they don’t understand is TCTA covers you in case you are ever falsely accused of being unfair to a student, put on an improvement plan with no explanation or evidence, not being given a duty-free lunch or conference period. TCTA will also be there when you plan to retire. For me, it’s just nice knowing that I don’t have to go through my teaching career alone. I have support in case I ever need it.”