Have you ever had a teacher that had such high expectations you almost gave up but, because you cared what she thought so much you persevered and grew? I had a teacher like that this summer. She also happened to be that kind of leader for Virginia. Dr. Jo Lynne DeMary was state superintendent for Virginia from 2000 to 2006. She was the first woman state superintendent in Virginia. She was also a non-partisan advocate for children first appointed by Republican Governor James Gilmore and then reappointed by Democratic Governor Mark Warner. She lead our state through the growing pains of an accountability system designed to, as she once said, “raise the floor of achievement” in our state. For that, she is one of my education heroes but, she taught me so much more this summer. She helped me to think about education in such a pragmatic and sensible manner that I don’t think I will ever approach educational issues the same way again. Her first question about a solution to an issue always seemed to be, “How does this help children?”
When Virginia began the Standards of Learning, as could be imagined, there was a lot of opposition. Although the standards were put into practice in 1995 they didn’t “count” towards graduation until 2004. The time period from 2000 to 2004 was a crucial time in our state. Dr. DeMary made a huge difference towards creating a better educational system in Virginia. She helped to create an environment where students could be successful and still meet high standards.
I guess the story that has most impacted me was a story that Dr. DeMary told at the Pinning Ceremony for National Board Certification in 2004.
She told a story about her local superintendent coming to her school. In those days there was time for that. He would come every couple months. When he came to her first grade classroom her first year she was beside her self with anticipation. He asked her how her students were doing. She said, “Great, almost all of them can read.” He asked, “Who can’t read?” She responded the way a teacher of the time might have, “Oh, well Jimmy.” He asked, “Why can’t Jimmy read?” She didn’t know what to say. Did it matter that Jimmy was from a broken home, played in class too much, or had older siblings who got in trouble? Did it matter if he was poor, black, white, or deaf?
When the superintendent came back she was ready. She had redoubled her efforts. Jimmy wasn’t reading yet but he was getting there. She was so proud. When he came the second time he asked one question, “Can Jimmy read yet?” She had to say, “No.” It crushed her. She never let it happen again. When he came at the end of the year she could say with confidence, “Yes.”
That is what Dr. DeMary taught me. It is not about getting the 70-80-90% to pass the test. Teaching is about every child not just the ones that are easy to teach but the ones who are hard to teach too. After hearing that story I decided it was no longer my job to make sure my students passed the PALs test in preschool. It was my job to get 100% of them reading or ready to read by the time they leave my class. That is the difference between being a good teacher and the teacher we are trying to be, excuses.
Not only did Jo Lynne DeMary lead the state she also helped to save failing schools. She helped to develop and implement the “Turnaround” principal program at the University of Virginia. Sadly, our state no longer funds the program but, it was a great program. You see, a turnaround specialist saved my school.
If we hadn’t gotten a turnaround principal 3 years ago we would still be failing our children.
So in a sense Dr. DeMary saved my school and my students through reforms she implemented from the top down. How did she do it? I think she did it by continuing to ask that simple question, “How does this help children?” I will keep that simple question with me for the rest of my life. No matter whether the issue is charter schools, national standards, teacher pay for performance, or universal access to preschool. I will ask that question and try to stand on the side that has the best answer.
That is why Dr. DeMary is one of my educational heroes.