Scott Whitenack’s alarm goes off at 5 a.m. to get ready for his day teaching 75 fourth-graders. 

He packs his gear for multiple cross-country practices after school, prays after he pulls into the parking lot at Chenoweth Elementary School and heads to his classroom to review lesson plans.

So the day of a fourth-grade public school teacher begins.

Whitenack is one of some 42,000 teachers in Kentucky. Their job is not easy. According to the National Education Association, teachers work an average of 11 hours a week overtime and spend an average of $479 from their own paychecks on school supplies. They buy lunches and pay for field trips. There are no statistics for the hours teachers spend thinking about students after school—especially those who go home to tough situations.

Classrooms include students dealing with health issues, dysfunctional homes, peer pressure, differences in learning styles and depression. Many are simply trying to survive another day.

“One of my students was killed a few years after she left my classroom. She was just 14 years old. Another former student is in prison for murder,” said Whitenack, a member of Southeast Christian Church. “It can be extremely hard when you wonder if you could have done more to help them. Even with bad things that happen, I still think teaching is the most rewarding thing to do. At the end of the year, it’s amazing to think about all that happened in my classroom.”

“I teach for kids like me.”

Whitenack may not be a typical elementary school teacher.

He’s 36. Tattoos cover his arms. He believes in tough love. But don’t miss the love part. He hopes the most difficult students land in his classroom. Some describe him as a rock star when he walks through the halls.

Whitenack teaches for kids like he was. Kids who struggle in school. Kids who don’t love the classroom. Kids who need math and reading tutors. Kids who don’t feel smart and struggle with self-confidence.

“I always thought there had to be a better way for kids who struggle with school,” Whitenack said. “First of all, you have to entertain and keep their attention, so you’re on stage. You must have a good relationship with your audience as you challenge them with new concepts and difficult assignments.”

Whitenack remembers the moment he decided to teach.

“I believe you can talk life into a person,” he said. “I can tell you exactly where we were when my dad said he thought I’d make a good teacher.”

He uses those moments with students.

“I had a student who struggled with every subject, but he could fix anything wrong with a Chromebook,” Whitenack explained. “Once when I was getting on him about not doing work in class, I mentioned he might have a future working with computers. Later in the year, I overheard him telling another kid that he wanted to be a computer programmer. I hope he continues that dream.”

Whitenack also applies coaching techniques to teaching.

“Last year I had an epiphany at a cross-country practice,” Whitenack said. “When I’m coaching, I cheer for every kid from first to last. I realized that I didn’t always do that in the classroom. It changed the way I teach. Now I cheer for the kids who are struggling or fail but give their best effort.”

Peanut butter and jelly

Before the morning bell rings, Whitenack pulls two chairs into the hall outside his classroom to greet every student by name.

“Kids need to hear their name,” he said. “They need other kids to hear their name. In fact, there are consequences for calling someone by any other name.”

Kids who want to talk take a seat in the empty chair next to him.

School days begin with a class meeting when students can talk about “anything.” Whitenack sees that time as “relationship building.”

Next it’s math, a special subject such as physical education, then science and lunch.

Teachers get 20 minutes for lunch. Whitenack has the same menu every day: peanut butter and jelly on one piece of bread folded like a taco.

Throughout the afternoon, Whitenack teaches the same subjects to different groups of fourth-graders. When students get on the bus at 3:45, he heads to cross-country practices or meets at Chenoweth Elementary School, JCTMS and Ballard High School.

Whitenack said students carried him through difficult days. When his beloved dog, Patches, died, students consoled him with hugs and cards. One gave him a stuffed dog to keep him company. He has kept every note or card a student has written to him.

“Teaching is a blessing and a gift greater than anything I could have dreamed,” Whitenack said. “I am blessed to be exhausted at the end of each day. I don’t have children, so I have time to give to other kids. It’s what I’m on this earth to do.”