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An interview with Rusty Fairheart

Rusty Fairheart
by Amy Rose Dobson

School and football go hand-in-hand around these parts. Luckily, our Middlesex School Superintendent is an expert in both subjects. In a struggling economy his job has only become more difficult in these past few months, but that doesn’t mean he likes it any less. Below, he talks about the two places he finds magic: inside the classroom and inside the gridiron.

If you compare teaching to football, many would say the teacher is like the coach of the team. But that leaves them on the sidelines. If you think about the players on the field is there a role that best corresponds to being a classroom teacher?

Fairheart: I would like to have the teacher seen as more of the quarterback than the coach. The quarterback is a part of the team and I would like to think that the teacher becomes more a part of what’s going on in the classroom and not necessarily the center of focus all the time. The teacher is the person who organizes and provides the framework, yet the kids must be engaged and active participants. Students actually carry out the activities and allow the group, or team, to move forward and be successful.

A great quarterback has to make quick decisions in the “pocket.” Does that compare at all to being an effective teacher?

Fairheart: That is what differentiates our good teachers from our great teachers. A great teacher has to identify those teachable moments. If they can relate anything from our curriculum to the real world, the retention rate is going to be higher. In my mind that starts with developing relationships with kids. It is difficult to relate something to a student’s life if you don’t know anything about them. Second, they have to be able to sense when the lesson isn’t going well and be confident enough to change the game plan to better meet the instructional needs of the students.

Working in public education is a daunting task, which many have compared to the story of Sisyphus endlessly pushing a boulder up a mountain. Do you ever have days that feel like that?

Fairheart: I think this feeling is much more prevalent for some of our central office administrators.  In our role it is often difficult to gain or receive instant feedback or gratification. It’s a patience game. I talk to people who take central office jobs for the first time and tell them this is something they really have to get used to. In the classroom and in the building you can tell right away if the kids understood the lesson and can observe growth and daily progress. In our case, it often takes months and years to determine if initiatives were effective or not.  It is truly a case of delayed gratification.

How do you keep going when the results seem so far off?

Fairheart: My first job as a teacher was in Southside, Virginia, with inner-city kids with emotional disabilities. That’s probably the most intrinsically rewarding position I’ve had to date in regards to developing relationships with kids and impacting their lives. It was difficult and humbling to see how much they were lacking in their home environments and to see how appreciative they were of everything that you provided for them. Any time I’m having a bad day I can always reflect on what I’ve seen and what some of our students are going through. This focuses things in the proper perspective and allows me to realize that things aren’t always as bad as they seem, and could be worse. To me, it’s all about the lens you choose to look through.

What are some of the county’s current academic priorities?

Fairheart: In recent years we’ve really honed in on individual student needs.  Such as students at the low end of the spectrum, because we need to provide them with an opportunity to meet the benchmarks. Additionally, we have kids at the high end of the spectrum that we may not be taking as far as we can take them. Special education and gifted education are very similar in my eyes. The students’ abilities are different, but our responsibilities to each of these populations are the same. Our commitment is to providing each individual student to achieve his or her potential.

While doing all this you have to keep a lot of different people happy. Are there times when you have been stuck in a Catch-22?

Fairheart: During the spring budget cycle public education was a Catch-22. Regardless of where you focused your resources you were either directly or indirectly diminishing services to kids. There was no way to keep everybody happy. We knew that going into the process.

What were some of the biggest challenges?

Fairheart: It is difficult to make real school-based decisions. That’s one of those things that is hard to wrap your arms around. Since we are such a small division, every decision at the elementary school affects the middle school and the high school. Also, a lot of times during the budget process the conversations went toward personnel. As an employer there is certainly a responsibility to our employees, yet our ultimate responsibility and focus has to remain on the students.

About the author:
Amy Rose Dobson is a freelance writer who divides her time between Urbanna and Northern Virginia in search of interesting people with a story to tell. She writes for several national publications and has found the best part of the job is hearing the story behind the one that runs in print. This gave her the idea for a column about how people apply metaphors to their lives, and thus this column was born.

posted 12.16.2009

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