Guest Column

From Boardroom to Classroom and Back Again

by David E. Sawyer

"What’s it like teaching again after so many years?” asked my mother.

I had resigned the superintendent’s position in Tulsa, Okla., and my wife and I had moved back home to Virginia where I had accepted a teaching position. I told the brave principal who recommended my employment that I believed teaching again would be “energizing.” That was not the half of it!

I had worked earlier as a university professor supervising student teachers, a state department of education official who visited many schools, and an assist-ant superintendent with responsibilities in dozens of a district’s schools. For the last 18 years I had been the superintendent in four different states. It had been nearly four decades since I had the day-to-day responsibilities of a teacher.

As a superintendent I visited schools and classrooms. I substituted every so often. I even scheduled “Day at School” experiences with students selected at random so I could stay in touch with the schooling experiences we were providing. But I was still the superintendent. I did not see the school day through a real teacher’s eyes under those circumstances.

Non-Stop Action
Before answering, my mother, I recollected what it was like to live in Florida. While living there, I often had the opportunity to watch dolphins from a sailboat. They would swim alongside our boat chasing each other and bobbing, jumping and diving along the way. They would “speak” in their unique high-pitched and obviously meaningful (to them) but unintelligible (to me) sounds. Often one would swim up, head held above the water looking quizzical as if to ask, “What are you doing out here Dude?”

“It is like teaching a school of dolphins,” I responded to mom. My new classes of middle schoolers reminded me of dolphins. They were smart, quizzical, verbal and constantly in motion. They talked non-stop although much of the verbal noise they seemed so prone to make could hardly be classified as speech. They chased each other. They hid each other’s possessions. They always had questions for me: “Ever shot anybody?” “What is your favorite birthday cake?” and “How old are you?” come to mind.

And fortunately, like the dolphins, they were not destructive or mean or angry.

New Appreciation
My responsibility to direct all of that energy, enthusiasm and noise toward learning in my technology education laboratory was energizing beyond belief. Night after night I worked to prepare something for the next day that would make the curriculum more meaningful, interesting or motivating. (Office Depot and Home Depot became my nocturnal partners.) My plans did not always work.

After nine weeks back in the classroom, I was selected for a superintendent appointment once again. Even though I had been told I was successful as a superintendent in the past, I am confident I will be so much better at the job now because of my recent stint as a teacher. Nothing could have served me better for the re-assumption of the superintendent’s duties.

While I’ve been diligent to recognize and express appreciation for teachers, now I feel I need to hug every teacher for the amazing job each one does, day in and day out, year in and year out, making the important differences for the young children, adolescents and young adults they teach. I appreciated teachers before but now I really appreciate teachers. Teaching again was energizing as I had suspected it would be, but it was also more demanding and more challenging than I had ever realized as a superintendent. I had been out too long. I will not make this mistake again.

I knew all students were not self-directed, eager learners who came to class begging for challenging and meaningful learning. I knew they were not all there with a strong desire for intellectual development or to clearly demonstrate academic progress or to attain high levels of achievement in school. I knew they did not necessarily arrive ready to learn or even to behave.

And I knew teachers had to create exciting and meaningful environments and direct and control the learning experiences of their students regardless of the circumstances or conditions in the students’ lives. I knew these were no easy tasks with the wide and disparate skills and knowledge represented among the diverse student populations we served, not to mention personal motivations or family circumstances.

A Public Reminder
But I did not know (or sadly I had forgotten) how much support and encouragement must be provided for teachers to have the maximum opportunity to succeed with each and every student every day without exception. I did not know (or sadly I had forgotten) just how much credit is due to teachers for students’ academic success no matter how small or great that success may have been for a particular student.

Everyone needs to be reminded of just how important our teachers are to the community, and everyone in the community needs to be recruited to help in providing the support and encouragement teachers need. Good schools are the result of quality teaching. Quality teachers provide quality teaching. And good schools mean higher standards of living, increased property values and a better qualify of life for everyone in the community.

Are you a superintendent? Been out of the classroom for long? Then teach again. You’ll never be the same. You’ll be better. Guaranteed.

David Sawyer is superintendent of the Stafford County Public Schools, 31 Stafford Ave., Stafford, VA 22554. E-mail: sawyerde@staffordschools.net