Back on February 10, 2020 I had the privilege of speaking at the monthly meeting of the Richmond West Breakfast Lions Club.
I want to thank my friend, Bruce Watson, for inviting me to speak. This invitation is probably the only mistake Bruce has ever made in his life and career.
In all seriousness, the good Lord doesn’t make a human being any better than Bruce. Doesn’t matter the setting—education, church, or community, people have high praise for Bruce and his work. He has touched a lot of lives for the good.
You know my wife reminds me, William, you have a resume full of experiences, but you are still a knucklehead.
So, let this knucklehead get started.
Perhaps, you are familiar with this verse of scripture from James Chapter 3, verse 1: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”
When I served as principal at Lakeside Elementary School, we were in our second year of SOL testing. Our results from the first year were not acceptable. We were nowhere near passing. Accreditation wasn’t on the radar.
During that second year, on a beautiful spring afternoon, I called for a faculty meeting. Calling for a faculty meeting that wasn’t on the calendar was probably a bad idea, but I did it any way.
On the previous afternoon, our faculty and I had a frustrating meeting with one of the big enchiladas from the school board office. The focus of the meeting was our SOL testing prep.
The next morning that big enchilada was waiting for me when I arrived at Lakeside. We met, talked. It was a civil conversation. But, deep inside I was still agitated.
Immediately after that ambush, I went into a disciplinary review hearing on student, with his parents, and the school board’s hearing officer. If there was a gauge for measuring stress in a body— mine was about to go off the scale. I felt like an old pressure cooker hissing and shaking on a stove top.
Somehow after the hearing, I tried to get back to the routine of the school day, but something kept gnawing at me. I was worried about the mental state of our faculty. I needed to shift the pressure they were feeling off of them and on to me.
So, I decided to call for that faculty meeting.
We gathered in the auditorium. Then I asked the faculty to follow me out into that beautiful spring afternoon. We huddled up in the middle of the playground far away from the building. I had a scrap of paper with me—the words from James Chapter 3.
I read those words to the teachers, and then told them that I believed in them, that I trusted them, and that I would handle the big enchiladas.
At the end of that school year, our students gave us the SOL success we needed.
I have often asked myself—why did this occur?
I really think the answer has many possibilities, but I keep coming back to support.
At the end of the day, I would wager any teacher in America would tell you being supported is often what they need the most, and sadly, that support is often what is lacking the most.
I was an imperfect teacher and administrator. But, no matter where I worked in my career, my imperfections were balanced out and improved by the quality of the people who surrounded me.
Think about your own careers, your own lives, think about those people around you. How did they mold you, shape you? How did they make you better?
That is what teaching is all about—molding, shaping, and making a student better.
Molding, shaping, and helping a student grow takes place in classrooms across the Richmond metropolitan area every day.
But the challenges teachers face in doing that molding, shaping, and improving is now more difficult.
Teaching, perhaps more than ever in our history has become tough, tough work. In my old brain, there are no easy school environments anymore.
Challenges exist in all schools, and they are not going away.
The real customers school systems serve today have changed dramatically. That customer base change is on going. School systems, their principals, and most importantly the classroom teachers deal with a changing customer base and community literally everyday.
So, why is this work, teaching, so tough at this very moment?
Well, unless you are prepared to stay here until this evening, I can’t give you all of the possible answers.
So, let’s talk about beer and ice cream for a minute. Yes, I know what you are thinking, Bill has lost his mind.
The craft beer explosion in America has changed the playing field. And to a smaller degree, so have tiny family run creameries related to ice cream.
If you don’t believe me, walk into your favorite grocery store and check out the shelf space for beer and ice cream.
What you are likely to find is that the major beer and ice-cream producers are still around, but their shelf space has been encroached upon by smaller breweries and creameries. For the big producers, their market share has gradually been impacted. They never anticipated this intrusion.
My point is this— when it comes to properly funding public education to the levels needed in every part of our state and country— that shelf space for legislators is over packed. There is only so much funding shelf space available our public schools.
That shelf space available for public school funding needs to expand.
Money always has been and always will be a critical need in public education. But, believe me, I know that money tossing is not the cure all.
However, I wonder how the life of a classroom teacher might be improved with the right kind of support?
Superintendents, school boards, school board staffs, principals need to have a conversation with teachers now. I’m not talking about an on-line survey. I’m talking about a real one on one conversation.
Yes, I suspect in those conversations officials will hear comments about money. But, I think teachers might also express “don’t promise me the money, promise me your support.”
Educators have I want to fix and save the world mentality.
They are committed to this.
But after years in the classroom, with all that society, policy makers, and experts who have never been in the trenches toss at them, they become weary and worn down.
When a teacher becomes weary and worn down, fixing and saving the world is seen through a hopeless lens.
Let me move away from gloom and doom.
At this very moment in a school, a student is learning an essential life skill. That student is learning how to read.
At this very moment in a school, a student with special needs has physically accomplished something that was thought to be impossible.
At this very moment, a high school nursing student has been accepted into a summer nursing program as an apprentice at a local hospital.
At this very moment, a teacher and a parent are joyfully crying because they figured out how to work collaboratively with a challenging child.
There are more examples to share, but that molding, shaping, and improving that I just described really came down to this critical piece—building relationships.
Building relationships comes from our internal energy, our interior fortitude to find the ability, capacity, and desire to build trust with a person who we might view as a difficult challenge.
When parents trust educators, educators trust parents, and students see that relationship—there is an opportunity for molding, shaping, and improvement.
As we look to the future, my barely functioning brain tells me, if we really, really want to solve some of the challenges we face in public education and society in general—we must stop the erosion of the American family.
The decline of that partnership, that unit, that commitment is hurting us more than we want to admit.
Hear me, I’m not saying that there aren’t exceptional single parents out there. I have worked with many outstanding single parents in my educator career.
But, we need to take a serious look at the breakdown of our families. No one wants to admit it, but I think it is a crisis.
Mark Twain once stated: “ Humor is mankind’s greatest blessing.”
Here is a pitiful attempt at that greatest blessing.
The doorbell rang, and the lady of the house discovered a workman, complete with a tool chest, on the front porch.
“Madam,” he announced, “I’m the piano tuner.”
The lady of the house exclaimed, “Why, I didn’t send for a piano tuner.”
The piano tuner replied, “I know, but your neighbors did.”
From 1981 to 1989, Dr. F. Douglas Dillard, Jr., served as the senior pastor at Trinity Methodist.
At home, I have a book of Dr. Dillard’s sermons.
In a sermon titled “Staying With It,” I have one line of wisdom from that sermon highlighted.
Dr. Dillard wrote: “Problems yield to sustained effort.”
That is a powerful sentence.
I believe those words.
And I believe the challenges, the problems, we face in public education can be solved by our sustained effort.
Individually and collectively, we have no choice.
We can’t wait.
That molding, shaping, and improving for every child is depending on us.
It has been an honor to be with you this morning.
I’m happy to take any questions.