Ben Austin credits his high school history teacher, Casey Herring, for his passion in education – including being Austin’s role model, giving him a sense of urgency for the profession by encouraging and lifting up students in the classroom, and instilling in him a need to inspire young minds by helping children develop life skills to become better citizens.
Little did Austin – who teaches ninth and 10th grade history at Petal High School – know that several years later, those ideals would lead to him being named the 2020 Mississippi Teacher of the Year, for which he beat out three other finalists from around the state.
“I’m very blessed and honored,” said Austin, who went to high school in Lima, Peru, when his parents were missionaries in South America. “I still feel very underserving, but I’m thankful for being recognized as the Mississippi Teacher of the Year. I was completely surprised.”
With the win, Austin will have the opportunity to share expertise through various presentations, professional development, and activities for the improvement of education. While he doesn’t have an exact plan for that yet, his platform as Mississippi Teacher of the Year will be to focus on teacher recruitment and retention.
“So really, (it’s) sparking the passion in the hearts and minds of new teachers, but also teachers who have been in the profession long enough,” Austin said. “For me, it’s an opportunity to be able to just remind teachers of why they joined the profession and enjoy the passion that still exists.”
As Mississippi Teacher of the Year, Austin also will be able to represent the state at the National Teacher of the Year competition.
“Again, it goes back to the fact that I am very undeserving of this,” he said. “I just completed my fourth year of teaching, and I feel as if there are many teachers who are more equipped for this position.
“But to know that a fourth-year teacher can have a voice, and can have the same impact as another teacher who’s been teaching far more years than I, is encouraging. But also, it really sets a challenge before me. I’m really ready for that challenge, and ready to be able to be a part of something that’s much larger than I am and the impact I’m having.”
In addition, Austin was awarded with a $5,000 stipend for being named Mississippi Teacher of the Year. Originally, he planned to use the funds to pursue his specialist’s degree in higher education from William Carey University.
“Although, I also found out when I received the award that William Carey is paying for my next degree,” Austin said. “So (the stipend) will either be funneled back into my degree, or I actually want to become national board certified. Or I may just funnel it back into the classroom.”
Austin graduated with his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from William Carey University, and worked as a recruiter there in the education department. He started with the school district in 2016 as a 10th-grade World History teacher. Currently, he teaches 9th-grade Advanced Placement Geography, 10th-grade World History and 10th-grade Accelerated World History.
“We are Panther Proud that Ben Austin was selected as the Mississippi Teacher of the Year,” said Matt Dillon, superintendent of the Petal School District. “Our district has been fortunate to have several teachers of the year for our state, and Ben is another deserving educator.
“One of the qualities that I admire about Ben is his humble heart. He is about relationships and through those relationships, he is able to positively impact students. Ben is passionate about his subject matter and is a team player within his departments. Ben will represent Petal School District and the State of Mississippi very well.”
Other finalists for Mississippi Teacher of the Year were Sarah Hall Robinson of Oxford School District, Mina Conlee Darnell of Clinton Public School District, and April Lang of Forest Municipal School District.
“I’m the teacher that I am today because of the support that I have,” Austin said. “The support that I had through Mr. Herring, the support that I currently have with my co-workers at Petal High School, as well as my family. I couldn’t have gotten to this point as teacher of the year if it wasn’t for (their) support.”