Matt Wester ’06, M.A.Ed. ’10 is challenging the odds. As a physics and biology teacher at Franklin Military School in Richmond, Virginia, he has devoted more than a decade to a profession that nearly half of new teachers nationally leave within five years.
The need for highly qualified teachers is especially critical in urban school districts such as Richmond’s, where more than half of the students are economically disadvantaged. As a middle school science teacher, Wester is also focusing on a student population and subject area identified by the Virginia Department of Education as having critical teacher shortages.
But Wester says he likely would not be where he is without the James E. and Barbara B. Ukrop Richmond City Public School Teacher Scholarship, which he received in 2009. It provides annual funding for students at the William & Mary School of Education who agree to teach in Richmond Public Schools for at least one year.
“By tying me to Richmond, the scholarship helped me get my foot in the door when I started applying to jobs,” says Wester, who signed on to teach two years in the city as required at the time. “My first year of teaching was hard; it was a steep learning curve. Committing to two years in Richmond helped me to persevere through some of those challenges that I faced my first year.”
Jim Ukrop ’60, L.H.D. ’99 and Barbara Ukrop ’61 established the scholarship in 2003, and Wester is one of 17 recipients to date. Generous supporters of William & Mary for many years, the Ukrops are also civic leaders in their home community of Richmond, where they champion business, arts and education initiatives.
“The reason Bobbie and I support scholarships for the School of Education is because it produces great teachers,” Jim Ukrop says. “The recipients commit to teaching for a year in Richmond Pubic Schools, where 50% of our students starting first grade do not know their numbers, colors or alphabet. If we are to create equal opportunities for all our citizens, we need to have great teachers who are committed to their profession.”
Wester says he is very appreciative of the Ukrops’ assistance and the nudge that the scholarship provided for him to work in Richmond Public Schools.
“I’m very proud and thankful of my work as a teacher at Franklin Military over the last 10 years, and I may not have found myself there without the Ukrops’ influence,” he says.
His perseverance has paid off in numerous ways. In December 2018, Wester achieved National Board Certification, an advanced teaching credential that goes beyond state licensure. That same year, he was named a recipient of the R.E.B. Awards for Teaching Excellence through a local foundation, which will fund a three-week tour of Western national parks including Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Glacier.
Wester’s role at Franklin Military, the oldest public college preparatory military school in the nation, amounts to more than that of a teacher. He models dedication and patience to students as he helps them grasp course material. He has become like a family member to groups of siblings he has taught.
“I’m the only biology and physics teacher in the building, so everyone comes through my classroom,” he says. “It’s awesome to see students walk across the stage at graduation and know every single name.”
The students aren’t the only beneficiaries of Wester’s experience and dedication. In recent years, he has served as a mentor to others who are new in the profession through the Richmond Teacher Residency program.
“It has been very rewarding to start passing on some of the gifts that mentors and cooperating teachers have given to me,” he says. “This is my chance to give back, in a very indirect way, all the blessings that were given to me over the years.”