It was early Monday morning when Kentucky Commissioner of Education Stephen Pruitt greeted McLean County educators with an enthusiastic “Good morning!”
Monday marked the school district’s opening day, and district leaders, staff and the McLean County Board of Education gathered in the McLean County High School gym to kick off the new school year, two days before students were set to return.
Pruitt was funny, engaging and passionate about education as he spoke to the group.
“First let me start by saying I hope you all know how great a superintendent you’ve got,” he said at the start. “I don’t say that all the time when I speak, but (Superintendent) Terry (Hayes) was probably one of the first people I’ve met in Kentucky, and I guess I should thank the board because you all let me pull him to Frankfort all the time, and being in Frankfort can have a bad effect on people, but I appreciate you letting me borrow him because I do lean on him quite a bit.”
He told the group he wasn’t there to talk about policy but rather their profession.
Being commissioner was never part of the plan, he said, “and so I just thought I would talk about things that have impacted me over the years and, at the end of the day, whatever we choose to do, I think it’s important we figure out what made us us.”
Pruitt discussed a series of four-word phrases that have led him to where he is.
The first, he said, is “I am a teacher.”
“I remember that day in August of 1991, walking into Sandy Creek High School in Tyrone, Georgia,” Pruitt said before digressing. ” … How many new teachers (do we) have here? Here’s my advice to you: No. 1, it’ll get better. I still owe a letter of apology to all of my kids my first three years of teaching. It gets better. Stick with it, but you have joined the greatest and most noble profession on the planet, just know that.
“But I remember getting the key to my room. I had my badge, walk down, open the door. I remember walking in and going ‘I am a teacher!’ I also remember 15 minutes later — ‘Holy crap. I’m a teacher. There’s no one else here to help me. I am alone.’ But you know what? I wasn’t alone. I was never alone. I had other people. Now, one of the things that was hard for me as a new teacher was admitting that I needed other people.”
That was something not only a “big deal then,” but now as well, Pruitt said.
“I have to make decisions virtually every day that affect 650,000 kids,” he said. “And there’s never a day that I wake up that I don’t realize the responsibility that sits on my shoulders. But in my office, I have a little alcove in the back, it’s my teacher place. When I have a really hard decision to make, it’s where I go because I know the decision I’ve got to make is going to be something that affects kids, it’s going to affect adults. It’s the place I go to remember. It’s the place I go to think about when I make this decision, how are teachers going to actually handle this.”
Another four words that made an impact: “You have been nominated.”
Pruitt talked about getting the nomination for education commissioner after saying he would never go back to state government.
“The moral of this story is you have to let yourself be open to the things that allow you to do things for kids, whatever that may be,” he said. “Sometimes that’s teaching a class you may not particularly care for, sometimes that’s having to do a duty you may not like. But at the end of the day, the thing is, all of it comes down to kids. And if we don’t make ourselves available to do those kinds of things, then it’s not just you and your comfort level. It’s what you can do to help the children. I’m not telling you that I believe that what I’m doing right now, I’ll be able to affect every kid in McLean County. But what I can do is I can try to put good policies in place, I can try to keep the load off of you all as much as possible. I can try to elevate the teaching profession to a place it’s not been for a very long time, not just in Kentucky, but around the country. I can support your board and your superintendent, and they can help me know what you all are dealing with, so we can try to do things that are going to remove the obstacles that will help you do a better job for your kids.”
Ending his discussion, Pruitt said he appreciated the faculty and staff.
“That’s not something a commissioner’s just supposed to say,” he said. “… The work you do will make a difference in the lives of children. Doctors may save lives, teachers make lives. Go make a few this year.”
Hayes, who said he’s gotten to know the commissioner through committee work in Frankfort, said it was an honor for Pruitt to come to McLean County.
“I know the staff certainly appreciates it, I know the community will,” he said. “I think what they were able to see today is that he’s human. He’s been a teacher. He’s been where they have been, and he never forgets where he comes from, which allows him to continue to be humble.”
For Hayes, it’s important that Pruitt visit the community.
“Sometimes it’s a mindset that people think we’re just little, old McLean County,” he said. “I don’t buy into that mindset. I say we are McLean County. We want to be leaders in education. We want to serve our kids.”
McLean County students were set to return to class on Wednesday, and for his part, Hayes said he was excited to start the new year.
“It seems like there’s a lot of energy in the air,” he said. “I think people are excited. We had probably one of the longer summer breaks that we’ve had in a while, maybe ever. I feel like our teachers, our staff, our classified, I think we’re ready to begin another year.”