It was about 8:30 at night when I met up with Maury County’s Director of Pupil Services, Dr. Ron Woodard. While we were waiting in line for a coffee, he nodded over at a young manager and proudly informed me that she was one of his former students. Before taking the job in Maury County, Woodard was leading schools in Nashville, most recently at Maplewood High School. Maplewood is a school with a long history in Nashville, and unfortunately, much of it is not good. It’s a school that has a large African American population with many children coming from impoverished homes. It was a place where Woodard was able to make a real difference. The same kind of difference that he is now trying to make in Maury County, where the demographics are decidedly different.
Over the last year, the conversation over discipline practices in our schools has begun to take center stage. As an African American male with no shortage of discipline issues to deal with in a high needs school, I was interested to hear Woodard’s thoughts on the subject and how he felt the needs of rural kids compared with those of their urban peers.
Dad Gone Wild: Ron, appreciate you meeting up with me. As Maury County’s Director of Pupil Services, you’ve now got a whole new set of challenges. Yesterday I was reading about your bass fishing team. I know you didn’t have one of those at Maplewood.
Ron Woodard: We have got one high school that has a bass fishing team. It is certainly catching on. I rather enjoy the sport. I’ll probably get out there myself.
DGW: I enjoy a little fishing myself, but you know that bass fishing is a little too serious for me. I like to get out there and just drown a few worms. Let’s talk a little bit about your background, you are from right here in Nashville, right?
RW: That’s correct, from right here in Nashville. I went to school at Hillsboro High School and then moved on to the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, earned my degree in biology. After that, I moved on back to Nashville, got my master’s degree in management and educational leadership, and then earned a doctorate from Lipscomb.
DGW: A doctorate from Lipscomb makes you another one of Candice’s kids. (Candice McQueen is the current Tennessee Commissioner of Education, but was formerly the Senior Vice President and Dean of the College of Education at Lipscomb University.)
RW: I was in the first graduating class of Dr. McQueen’s. So I think highly of her and greatly respect her work and what she’s doing in education.
DGW: So what made you actually decide to get into teaching? That’s quite a jump from biology to teaching.
RW: Believe it or not, I was a tutor at Sevier Park when I was 17. I was walking through the park one day and there is this house up there, kind of a plantation looking home. I stopped in and they were tutoring kids inside that little mansion and then this lady said to me, “We need someone to help with 4th grade math.” I said okay, and I was just loving the opportunity to help young people. I had been involved with youth services since I was about 14 years old as a camp counselor with my church. Every summer we would go out and do summer camp, and I was the camp counselor and loved it. Being a tutor at Sevier Park kind of peaked my interest. Initially though, I was going to go to college to make a lot of money. I thought I was going pre-med, but one of my teachers had what he called a “teacher curse,” and so he put the “teacher curse” on me and since it has always worked, I became a teacher.
DGW: Interesting. That Sevier Park area – I bought a house over there on 12th Avenue and Douglas Avenue in 1993 for $73,000.
RW: Man, that’s worth like $300k now.
DGW: At that time, the neighborhood looked a little different. Let’s just say it didn’t look like me.
RW: Oh yeah, I am familiar. I loved that neighborhood. I grew up on 10th Avenue South, which Douglas Avenue runs into. What was weird was that we were zoned for Overton High School, but right across the street from my house was a bus stop for Hillsboro High School. I went to Hillsboro because the bus stop was closer. I just walked out my gate, went across the street, caught the Hillsboro bus on the first day of school. Back then being out of zone wasn’t such a big deal. If you were out of zone you just had to get a special transfer. No big deal. I got a special transfer and spent four years at Hillsboro.
DGW: And there you have it. One issue we are all taking a closer look at these days is discipline and how it’s applied. As a principal who has worked in a lot of our more challenged schools, I’m interested in your thoughts.
RW: I think we have to recognize that the kids are different. You are dealing with Millennials and the Millennial mindset. I think that relationship building is the key and really trying to connect with kids. You’ve got to get to the root of what their issues are if you are going to help kids be successful. Now to some degree, kids are still kids – they will pull pranks, they will get into mischief, you’ll have schoolyard fights. That’s all nothing new; it’s been going on since the beginning of time. Boy meets girl never gets old. Kids will be kids, but the difference is that I do believe we are dealing with a more fragile kid today. You know, whereas 20 years ago, if a person didn’t like you or you heard a nasty rumor about you, it wasn’t as big a deal. These kids will internalize everything about what others think of them. So I think really helping kids nail down becoming self-confident is key with this generation because they care so much about what others think. They are so driven by outside perceptions – you know, how many likes do I have, how many people will see my page, and how many friends do I have – and that just makes things different.
DGW: It is an interesting issue you raised. You know, I grew up, I moved around a whole lot, and I was 65 pounds until I was in 11th grade, and then I weighed 75 pounds. But I always had a smart mouth, so I was bullied all the way through school. That gives me a different perspective, like you said. Some of it you just brushed off, and some of it taught you survival skills. But you’re right, it has gotten a whole lot more serious, and in some cases, deadly for kids, and we need to not slough it off. I think one of the things that I’ve found in working with kids and being around kids is that they are much more attuned to your credibility because they’re constantly searching for credible sources of information.
RW: I believe that. I think kids gravitate towards the real message. They’re looking for people who are authentic.
DGW: Yeah, that’s the word, authentic. I used to tell my camp counselors don’t just pay attention to how you act when you think kids are looking. It’s even more important how you act when you think they are not looking.
RW: Yeah, particularly when you’re in an urban setting; kids will pick up on that in a New York minute. They will watch your body language, they will read you, they will try to figure you out, but when they decide that you’re authentic, you are genuine, you are real, they will gravitate towards you. It will help you really build relationships.
DGW: And consistency is important. Outside of an urban setting now, what kinds of challenges are you seeing?
RW: You know, the challenges are actually quite similar. As I said, kids will be kids. Some of the issues that we faced in an urban environment, we see them also in a more rural environment. I think poverty brings about similar issues. We certainly see them played out a little bit differently in the rural environment as opposed to the urban environment, but overall very similar issues. In some ways not as extreme as what I saw here in the inner city, but again similar.
DGW: What kinds of things you hope to do in Maury County over the next couple of years?
RW: I hope to build trust, build relationships. I hope to be viewed as a source of inspiration, a source of knowledge. I’m hoping to create a sense of belonging for kids in a particular area. I want to be a person who’s thought of as a knowledgeable, inspirational person who was a go-to guy, a go-getter – you know, a person who can make things happen for kids.
DGW: I don’t think you need to worry too much. You’ve also got a unique situation at home. You’re not the only high quality educator in your household?
DGW: What’s that like, and what’s your wife’s exact title?
RW: She’s a teacher, 8th grade maths.
DGW: But she’s a SCORE fellow too, isn’t she?
RW: Well, she wasn’t a SCORE Fellow. She was actually the person who ran the SCORE fellowship program.
DGW: My bad, apologies. Now that she’s back in the classroom, is she enjoying it?
RW: Loves it. She missed the classroom terribly.
DGW: It’s interesting to me, one of the things that we hear people talk about all the time is creating these leadership paths for teachers to allow them to assume more leadership roles, but for some people, I think the classroom is the ultimate. My wife was a coach for three years and is now back in the classroom, and it’s like…
RW: like magic.
DGW: Exactly. She’s much happier now than she was. Having that daily impactful contact with kids was important for her. She certainly enjoyed being a coach and it increased her knowledge base tremendously but the politics were always a bit much for her. I think sometimes teachers don’t like to see what’s behind the door. I think that often they find that the more of a leadership role you take, the more you are making decisions that are further removed from the children. Is that consistent with your experiences?
RW: It can be. My wife really missed the kids, the classroom, she missed the smiling faces, she missed seeing the lights come on. That moment when kids walk into the room and they don’t know content, and then she’s able to teach in a way that helps some quickly grasp it. Seeing those “aha” moments are thrilling for her.
DGW: How about for you, though? I mean, with your position, you have less interaction with children than you previously did. As a principal, you were very hands-on. Any trouble adjusting to the lessening of interaction?
RW: I do miss kids quite a bit. At the same time, I’m enjoying working with adults to help them better serve kids. So it’s been, after 12 years, somewhat of a welcome change to my life.
DGW: One of the things that I found challenging is that I have always moved up the ranks into management, and one of the challenges is how quickly you can lose contact with what’s happening in the trenches. For example, I went from being a waiter into a being a restaurant manager. I quickly forgot exactly why waiters were making the decisions that they were making, and I found myself getting frustrated because they wouldn’t do it the way I thought was best despite the fact that they were really doing things in a more efficient manner. You lose sight of exactly why decisions get made, and you start to devise these brilliant plans that don’t take into account exactly what’s happening on the ground. Do you have any tricks that you use to keep yourself connected with day-to-day actions?
RW: I just try to stay grounded. I pride myself on being kind of a savvy communicator. I think as a leader you have to tap into what’s going on; the people under you are critical to your success. I think you have to know what they’re thinking and you have to know what they are doing. It’s important, though, to give people the autonomy and room to do great work as well. So, you set your expectations, lay the ground rules, and then back away. Let them do the right work, and then kind of offer yourself as a help when needed.
DGW: When you mentioned leadership, how would you describe your leadership philosophy?
RW: I would definitely say that I am an influencer, highly motivational, highly influential, the kind of guy who can generate buy in, the kind of guy who can generate great morale while rallying people for common goals. Like at Maplewood High School, we had tough challenges that we had to face, but I got the troops together and said, “Guys, we gotta get this task accomplished, and here’s how we’re gonna do it. We will create some synergy.” I believe great leaders create great synergy, and once the organization has synergy, ideas start coming from all over the place. People start to own it, and then these amazing things start happening.
DGW: So you are a big believer in culture?
RW: Huge believer in culture. I’m also a huge believer in branding. I believe you have to create a viable brand. When I was at Maplewood High School, we created the Panther Nation. We made the Panther Nation ultimately one of the top brands in the city. Hands down, people knew about what was happening at Maplewood High School. My philosophy was that we were going to hit you with something new, something fresh, a new idea, a new hot topic, a new gimmick every 30 days. That was our aim: to bring something big out of Maplewood High School every month.
DGW: It worked. I would brag to people about the things you were doing even though I was over here on the south side of town and had never visited Maplewood. But you created an excitement that sucked me in and made me want to follow you on social media and know what was happening there. I would get caught up in your excitement. Then if I ran into somebody and they told me they were going to enroll their kid in Maplewood, I’d become a walking testimony for you. Selling them on the school before they ever walked through the door. That’s what your branding did; it created a vibe before people even entered the building.
RW: I think you have to stay relevant. It’s easy to be irrelevant in this time when people have choices and options. People have perceptions and people vote with their feet; they go where they feel comfortable. I was there for five years. We took this school that had this awful reputation and made it viable and made it relevant and people would want to come there. While I was at Maplewood, it had an increase in enrollment almost every year. It was once perceived as one of the most unsafe schools, probably in the entire state of Tennessee. It’s a high school where a student was murdered at graduation and commencement in 2010, and it’s also had some other tragedies that have occurred on campus, and I mean serious tragedies. So it’s no walk in the park. But we made it attractive and effective.
DGW: The school is certainly on an upswing, Let’s talk about the Firestone garage that is at Maplewood.
RW: It’s pretty cool. We have an amazing automotive instructor, Miss TJ Williams. Miss Williams, Dr. Kelly Jones Mason, who is the principal now, and I had several opportunities to meet with the folks at Bridgestone. We started a conversation around actually converting this dream into a reality for Miss Williams; it was a seven-year prayer. She prayed for this to happen for years, and it actually came to fruition. It took about a year, maybe 18 months, to actually build it out and make it look like a Firestone training center, but it physically has just about everything you would find in a standard Firestone. It’s amazing. It’s the first and only one like it in the country, and I’m very proud of it. When I think about my legacy as a leader, I think about the Entrepreneurship Center at Maplewood, I think about the Firestone Garage, I think about the fitness center. We probably had one of the worst weight rooms in the city. We converted the old wrestling room, since we didn’t have a wrestling team, and made it into a 2000 square feet fitness center. Not only the athletes can work out there, but the teachers also have a place to work out after school. Students can work out there if they want to as well. We raised the graduation rate by 20 percent. We saw an increase in ACT scores. I think last year we had somewhere around five million dollars in scholarships. Things are definitely on the move, great things happening, and now Dr. Mason will put her own stamp on things.
DGW: A lot to be proud of. To wrap things up, any final thoughts? What do you think should be the focus in education?
RW: I really think that we need to place more emphasis on the kids who fall through the cracks. There are a number of kids who want to be successful, but have environmental challenges or other challenges at home that prohibit them from being all they could be. You know kids who fall through the cracks rarely get second chance opportunities. I think one of the things that we did extremely well was that we identified kids who just needed something different. Kids who may have struggled with self-esteem or kids who have struggled with personal issues, academic conference issues – we went after those kids. We even went after those kids who would dare to drop out. We would go after those kids. We would show up at their job, we would knock on their door, we would do community rounds. I think you probably saw that video.
DGW: One of my favorite videos, actually.
RW: Yeah, everything in that is real. That is who we really are. That’s our real identity, not us putting on. We care that deeply for kids that we will take the extra steps, go an extra mile. When you walk inside Maplewood High School, there is a description that says Lives will be changed in this school every day. That was the mantra that I established for that school and it was the mantra for our staff, that we are really in this to change lives. If that means leaving work, going down to the community center to hang out with basketball players, we do that. We drive down to the community center, and we shoot basketball with kids down there. We put ourselves in their environment.
DGW: And that’s one of the things that was clearly important to you, and you were successful at it.
RW: I would bring the accountability to the community, and that’s the piece that the community saw that was different. I’m not just holding you accountable at school and letting you be a terror in the community in the afternoon. I’m going to bring the accountability into the community. You are going to find me at the community center, you will see me shopping at the local grocery store, you will see me in the barber shop. Kids would actually see their school’s leader in their environment.
DGW: I think that’s essential. It’s key.
RW: Very key.
DGW: Let me play devil’s advocate, though, and this is something that I’ve been wrestling with a lot lately. As we move more into restorative justice programs, I worry that there’s a bit of a danger in putting all of this on schools to prevent kids from falling through the cracks. There are problems that need to be solved outside of school because the reality is, kids are dealing with such severe tragedy or trauma that schools are not fully equipped to handle these issues. Yet we keep trying to come up with school-based solutions, which in my opinion, to a certain extent, delay children from actually getting the help they need. Also what about the impact on the other kids? We are not letting them fall through the cracks, but they are also affecting the lives of 22 to 25 or more other kids in that classroom. How do we balance out all those needs?
RW: So let me clarify, when I say falling through the cracks, I am really talking about student self-efficacy. Kids who just believe that they have no purpose, no value. You look at the Bill Gates study. He said there are a number of reasons why kids drop out of school. One, that they’re bored. Two, they think they don’t belong, that this environment is not for them. Or three, a lack of connectedness; they just feel like they couldn’t connect at school. I am not the star athlete, I’m not in the drama club or the chorus, and so what’s my connection to this school other than being forced to come here today by the forced attendance law? And so somewhere in that whole year span, someone’s got to connect with that kid, to reach and make them feel a part of this process. Otherwise, they begin to slowly drift off, and it’s too late when we notice. We don’t tend to notice until it messes with the numbers because this is a numbers game. And then it’s too late.
DGW: Unfortunately it has become a huge numbers game.
RW: Yeah, so we don’t tend to notice that a kid is drifting away until it affects the numbers; then we notice. Oh look, he’s not proficient in Algebra. But we’ve got to see those warning signs coming long before that, and I think to answer your question more specifically, I believe in restorative justice practices. I think restorative practices help them to understand the hurt that they cause when they violate rules. Kids are used to punitive discipline: I do something, I receive the consequences. But I’m not ever asked to think about the hurt that I caused when I hurt someone else. And in this particular scenario, you have to go back to the people you hurt and hear them express how your actions hurt them, and in many cases, kids do begin noticing that. They do begin to understand the power and implications of their actions. On the other hand, I am a fan of teeth also. If you violate rules, there will be some consequences, and stern ones at that. We’ll love you and we’re going to work with you, but if you violate, you will get the hammer, but it will be the velvet hammer. So there’s a balance of love in how you approach it.
As we wrapped up our interview and were sitting amicably talking, the manager’s shift was ending and the former student was gathering up her family to leave. She stopped at the table and exchanged warm pleasantries with her former principal. One of the children looked at him and said, “I remember you” with a big smile. It was clear that Woodard had made a big impact on this young family. I don’t doubt that many young people across middle Tennessee would say the same thing to Dr. Woodard, “I remember you.”