Marine, machinist, mechanic — Outstanding Mentor Teacher


Erik Ketcherside

In her letter nominating Ray Utter (BA, BAE '14) to be one of the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College Outstanding Mentor Teachers for 2016, his supervisor, Pamela Clark (MEd ’83), wrote, “The first time I walked into Ray Utter’s world history classroom, I was amazed. I have never been in a high school setting where a teacher intentionally created such a comfortable and inviting learning environment.” She found desks clustered in groups, scattered lamps instead of overhead lighting, a smartboard projection of a fireplace with burning logs and quiet music in the background. A sign above the fireplace read, “Welcome to Fireside Chats!”

What she didn’t find was Ray Utter. He was in the hall, greeting each student about to enter his room, and chatting with others whose friends had told them about Utter’s classes, their curiosity making them stop and peek in.

The recognition as an Outstanding Mentor Teacher surprised Utter, who is relatively new to the role. Still, according to Ashlee Harper (MEd ’16), a teacher candidate he mentored who is now a teacher herself, “There is no way for me to accurately illustrate how big an impact Mr. Utter had on me, as a future teacher and a person. He is truly the definition of an outstanding mentor teacher.”

Ray Utter shares his thoughts on being a mentor, a “career-switch” teacher and the importance of training the excellent teachers of tomorrow.

You’ve had more than your share of experience outside the classroom. What would you say to somebody who might be considering a career change to become a teacher?

I had the honor of serving in the U.S. Marine Corps and was deployed to Iraq in 2003. I also worked in a machine shop and as a mechanic for many years afterward. I didn’t begin my journey into education until I was 33 years old. Other than serving in the military, every career I’ve had outside the classroom felt like “just a job” to me; something I did just to pay the bills.

Educating the leaders of tomorrow is not “just a job.” It’s much bigger than all of us. While teacher pay is nowhere near where it should be, the personal gain is amazing. When you truly make a connection with students and realize you have helped them reach their true potential, it makes all the late nights and extra work seem trivial — especially when you see the same students years later and they tell you just how much of an impact you had on their lives.

So to others considering a career change: It’s never too late. My background provided me with a different perspective about education than many of my peers. We need more educators who have experience outside the classroom — those who bring unique perspectives and can offer sage advice and wisdom to those who will someday be in your shoes.

How did you launch your new career?

I graduated from ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teacher’s College and began teaching immediately in the fall, which of course makes me a proud alumnus.

I started at Deer Valley Middle School in Phoenix, teaching eighth grade U.S. history and working with amazing students and staff. In my first year I was very fortunate to receive the Rookie of the Year award from the Deer Valley Education Foundation. During my second year I took on the responsibility of being a department chair as well as a softball coach. My years there established a solid foundation for my teaching career.

Last fall I transferred to Sandra Day O’Connor High School where I teach world history. As much as I loved DVMS, I decided to challenge myself more with a different level of education. My experience here has been excellent, and I have already moved up to become a Learning Level Team leader in the history department.

What does a Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College mentor teacher do?

A mentor is responsible for providing teacher candidates — TCs — with hands-on experience they need to become successful educators. There is only so much you can learn about education in the college environment. You have to get yourself out there and be in front of students. The mentor’s responsibility is to facilitate the transition from TC to educator.

What do you see as the most important part of your role?

Simply supporting my TCs. Sometimes they need help creating lessons, dealing with discipline issues and so on. Other times they may feel overwhelmed and need some emotional support or even advice. Conversely, I need to pay attention to how a TC is progressing and figure out when it’s time to let go of some of my own control, so they can work things out on their own even if they fail. This is great for reflection and helping them grow.

From my TCs’ perspective, I think they believe my most important role is to provide guidance which allows them to discover their own methods and the style of teaching that is most beneficial to themselves and, more importantly, their students.

Did you have a mentor teacher yourself? What do you value most about that relationship?

I was blessed to have an amazing mentor. His name is Sean Flanigan and he is a veteran world history teacher at Ironwood High School in the Peoria (Arizona) Unified School District. We worked well as a team, and he pushed me to be in front of students as much as possible. He believed that the more time you have in front of students, the more experience you will get, which in turn will make you a more capable educator. I firmly believe in this approach and use it as a mentor myself.

But honestly, what has best equipped me to be a mentor is being a father. There are times when you have to hold a mentee’s hand a bit, then let them figure things out on their own. They start out crawling, then walking and running. Next thing you know they are graduating and off on their own! You kind of feel like a proud papa sometimes.

What excites you about the teacher candidates entering the field today?

TCs starting today seem to be really excited about the use of technology and trying innovative and new ideas. This is great because some veteran teachers find technology frustrating or don’t want to steer away from teaching strategies that they’ve come to love and rely upon for many years. While those strategies are still relevant, educators should always be striving to perfect their craft and be open to new ideas and concepts.