Aubrie Abernethy has incorporated teaching into her life since she was a small child, and her style continues to lean away from the traditional stand-at-the-blackboard-and-instruct mode toward a freer, more exploratory method that helps students weave together basic learning skills.
The skillful thinker is now a private tutor who uses unique techniques to engage students’ senses in ways that help them understand math, reading and science. She also has incorporated an extensive knowledge of Monarch butterflies and employs everything from eggs, larvae, a working set of wings, puzzles and other hands-on tools to engage the young to the elderly.
“My mother and daddy gave me a hallway closet when I was just a young kid,” she said while surrounded by a stock of her offbeat but clever teaching tools. “That was my first school. I wrote little math problems and stories. I was playing school, and my stuffed animals and dolls were my students.”
The Johnson City native earned a master’s degree in teaching at East Tennessee State University and she was off and running from there teaching elementary school students in Bristol and later putting in 10 years at South Side. After taking a few years off to raise her children, she taught first grade in Franklin, Tenn. She moved back to Johnson City in 1988 and for eight years worked as a private tutor
From 1997-2007 she taught kindergarten students at Mountain View and then retired, finishing up her public school job and diving back into private tutoring.
“I tell my students, ‘you are the captain of this team,’” she said. “Self-esteem building at an early age is so important. It’s about developing that can-do attitude. You’ve got to instill in them that they do make a difference, and that they know they make a difference.”
Abernethy gets referrals from Johnson City Schools, but they mostly come from word of mouth. Once contacted, she gets permission from the classroom teacher. She then meets with the teacher and parents to go over the students’ strengths and weaknesses. She provides her services year-round using 1-hour, one-on-one sessions.
“For example, a student comes in and has his backpack with him,” she said. “Inside are folders full of math he’s been working on that show he’s failing.”
She then brought out a jar full of coins. She picked out a few and placed them on a table, showing how she uses them to represent word problems.
“He’s got the visual here,” she said. “He actually touches the coins, and they may represent items in a math problem out of a book. He can use other senses to understand — he can see the object, which you can’t do in a traditional problem. He also can touch the objects and use his tactile sense, his sense of touch. The point is, this highlights their awareness. And through this you have a connectiveness. In fact, that connectiveness meshes not only the senses but also math, reading, science and other learned skills together.”
Abernethy said she’s always felt the outdoors was in her DNA.
She uses that to her advantage — and eventually passes it along to her students — through explaining and demonstrating the life cycle of the Monarch butterfly.
“To see how that life cycle works heightens awareness,” she said. “I’ve seen it happen in 3-year-olds and 93-year-olds. Right now they’re streaming into Mexico. They’ll leave next February and start moving north. Because they are dependent on milkweed, they’ll travel into the southern part of the U.S. and successive generations filter through the Appalachians all the way to Canada.”
Another demonstration of connectiveness.
It takes three countries to do it, but it’s the fifth generation of butterfly that makes it back down to Mexico during the winter. Abernethy has milkweed planted in her yard, and when the time is right, she collects the eggs on them, brings them inside and places them in terrariums. With these she can take the real thing around to after-school programs, rotary club meetings — you name it.
“It’s always been natural to me, and both my parents always encouraged creative thinking,” she said. “I’ve always felt like teaching and learning is meshed; it can’t be separated. To teach you have to have learned. And if what I do can make a difference in somebody’s awareness, it’s all worth it.”