Editor’s Note: This is a portion of the back-to-school speech given by Superintendent Scott Elliott to all faculty and staff during the 2022 Watauga County Schools Convocation Ceremony held on August 16, 2022. Elliott is starting his 27th year in public education in North Carolina and his ninth year as superintendent of Watauga County Schools.
It is a treat for me to welcome you, and to welcome back something that until the last couple of years has become a tradition at our annual convocation. That is, the performance of a special song by our talented music and arts educators. These selections have included numbers such as “Simple Gifts” from Appalachian Spring, “This Land is Your Land” — and always my favorite — “America the Beautiful.” The selection of those tunes has never been coincidental, and now more than ever we would benefit from a reminder and rededication to the idea that we all share something very special in common, that public education is our modern day land of opportunity, and we should never take either our democracy or our public schools for granted. I said that to you last year, and one year later it seems more true than ever.
Once again, our colleagues will perform for us a version of an American folk song first composed and published as a poem in 1895 by English teacher Katherine Lee Bates and arranged and re-arraged by many musicians, including the popular 1976 rendition performed by Ray Charles on the occasion of our country’s bicentennial, countless performances on TV productions such as Super Bowl 47, the David Letterman show, School House Rocks, and many others. Please join me in welcoming our colleagues as they share with us, “America the Beautiful.”
You have no idea the joy I feel seeing you all here, all together, today.
Hopefully by now I have gotten to know almost all of you, but I know we have many new folks, and some of you I have not seen in what seems like a long time. In case we have not met or if it was a very nice long summer and you tried hard to forget me: my name is Scott Elliott, and I am proud to serve you as superintendent of Watauga County Schools.
If you are very new to us, or if I have not gotten to speak with you recently, or if you just want to take a moment to say hello, please feel free after our program to come down and find me. I would love to talk with you.
The theme for this year’s convocation program, and a timely theme for the current state of public education — if not our entire society — is “Learning from our past. Creating our future.”
Indeed, all of you here today are working and dedicating your lives to the idea that we are creating a brighter and better future through public education. There is so much we can and should learn from our past, yet we are here today to create the future: the future of our profession, the future of our community — and most importantly — the futures of our students.
I would like to take a moment to do something we simply don’t do enough, and that is to recognize and thank the veteran professionals among us who have dedicated their lives to this important work and who we look to for strength. When we talk about learning from our past, there is nothing better we could do than to seek the guidance and support of the veteran educators among us. They too have seen a lot of change, and they too created the future that has led us here today. They should be thanked and celebrated. So I would like to ask, if you have 20 or more years of experience teaching or working in public schools, in any job role — maintenance, bus drivers, teachers, TAs, all jobs — please stand and be recognized.
Thank you all. I learn so much from each of you every day, and I deeply appreciate what you do to support and influence all of us.
Also, today we welcome some very special people who are joining us here today for the very first time. This summer we hired 85 new colleagues and welcomed them to our Watauga Schools family. Eighty-five people out of an applicant pool of over 1,154 applications. Once again we hired the best of the best. If you are here today and new to Watauga County Schools since last year’s convocation, would you please stand up at this time?
Everyone please join me in welcoming these new colleagues to our team.
To our new colleagues, we have welcomed you into this team because our future will be stronger with you here. Strength in this school system comes from colleagues in all positions in every department who come to work every day with a determination to make a difference, to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, something truly special.
So, all you new folks, welcome aboard! Look around you. All around you are people who want you to succeed and will help you in any way possible.
You are surrounded by a team of highly skilled professionals who believe that a system of high quality public education is the key that unlocks greater potential and brighter futures for each and every one of our students.
For those of you who were here at convocation last year, you might recall that I shared with you that I am a sucker for fortune cookies. And while I still have not found one that predicts the stock market, gas prices, or the final score of the App versus UNC football game, I do enjoy the little pearls of wisdom written inside. Last year I mentioned a few of my favorites, and in thinking about today I realized that one of them almost perfectly sums up our theme for today. It went something like this:
“The future isn’t what it used to be.”
Ok, and I am still pretty sure that someone at the fortune cookie factory stole that from the great philosopher Yogi Berra, but it is profound and timely nonetheless.
That quote reminded me of another quote I recently shared with our principals. It came from the 2000’s-something tv show “Monk.” You know, the super OCD clairvoyant detective Adrian Monk who had a phobia about almost everything. I was recently watching an episode of the show with my daughter when Monk said something that I think most of us can relate to. He said:
“I don’t mind change. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
Well, I think all of us can relate to Monk, at least some of the time. But, like it or not, change really is the constant. And, thank goodness that the future is not what it used to be, and that we do indeed have the power to learn from our experiences. We can’t wait and let someone else create our future. To make the future that we want, we have to be there. We have to show up. Thank you for showing up.
I now would like to share with you my predictions for the coming school year. No, I am not going to tell you all the really important things — like how many beans will be in your jar by the end of the month (if you don’t know about beans in jars, you’ll have to look it up!), how many inches of snow will make it to Boone, or what date we will hold graduation so you can go ahead and lock in a great deal on a cruise. All of those things are beyond the scope of my crystal ball, but I will try my best to look deep into my crystal ball and I will tell you with great accuracy all the things that we can expect in the coming year.
Before I start, I just want you to know: I am really really good at this. Without further ado, and building on my great success in purchasing large supplies of potentially counterfeit solar eclipse glasses in 2017; in 2019 I told you all about the coming global pandemic that would send us into remote instruction for the last quarter of the school year; in 2020 when I tortured the 20-20 vision metaphor by telling you that no one would really pay much attention to the national elections or have much of an opinion about whether or not students were required to wear masks, and that everyone would suddenly become preeminent experts on epidemiology and American history; and last year in 2021 when I declared the pandemic was over, masks were gone, that graduation would be held 10 months later on Friday, May 27th at 5:30 PM; and, all that our students would ever need to know to thrive in a complex cross-cultural high tech world is reading, writing, and arithmetic.
Of course, most of you know full well that I am just kidding. I said NONE of those things.
Just like you, I could have never in my wildest dreams imagined all that you, all that we, have experienced the last few years. Nor can I tell you now what all we can expect in the coming year. My poor attempt at humor here is to make the point that while we can learn from our history, we cannot always predict the future. Not being able to predict the future does not mean that we cannot create it — to be proactive, to own it, and make it the best it can be.
So, here are some actual things we know from our history and ways we can use that knowledge to create our future.
First, all the noise that seems to be all around us about what happens in our schools — what should be taught about our history, whose perspectives get to be shared, and even the fundamental purpose of education — none of that is new. And, it’s not going away. Why? Because what we do is really, really important. Schools have always been at the crossroads of cultural and political change. Reconstruction, desegregation, the inclusion of children with disabilities, the space race, A Nation at Risk. We’ve been here before. So, my first prediction is that we will continue to matter, people will continue to fuss and argue over us, and that’s ok.
Second, you will continue to matter. Each of you is here because you chose this work, and because you were chosen to be a part of this team. Our community and our families hold you in high regard. Children look up to you. They admire and respect you, regardless of their age and how they might act. The future of our community — and I contend our democracy — depends on you. No pressure.
Third, history tells us you are in a place where you are supported and respected. Yes, we might agree or disagree, fuss and argue, try and fail, succeed and celebrate. But, in this school system we will do so with mutual respect, mutual support, both given and received. It does not mean that we can teach whatever we want, say whatever we want, or make our students and families think and believe like we think. All of us in this school system don’t even think and believe the same ways, and that’s actually a very good thing. However, it does mean that we give trust and respect, and we expect it in return. Your school board, your superintendent, and the vast majority of your parents and community members respect and support you, and we will not let other people with other agendas attack you, we will not let them disrespect you, and we will not let anyone threaten you or tell you that you are not worthy of this profession. You matter. You are seen. You are loved. And that is not going to change.
Fourth, if the last few years taught us anything, it’s that we really are capable of achieving anything if we work together and keep our students at the center of our why — our purpose. Hand out thousands of laptops in mere days? No problem. Feed children and families by sending out teachers and custodians and front office staff and counselors on school buses, delivering hundreds of thousands of meals in four months? No problem. Create a whole new virtual school with a whole new staff and new way of delivering instruction? No problem. Mind you, I am not hoping for another unforeseen disruption, but I hold my head high knowing that the people in this room can solve any problem and achieve any goal as long as we do it together.
Last, but not least, I predict and I believe that relationships still matter, and they matter more than ever. This year we will have children walk through our doors wondering if they belong, wondering if they are safe, wondering why any of this matters. For that matter, some people in this room might be feeling the same way. Our parents will be watching and listening, waiting to see if we will be trusted with the most precious thing in their lives. And, that is a kind of trust that has to be earned. No pressure, but this great experiment in public education, in building and sustaining a community, really depends on our ability to develop and grow our positive relationships: with each other, with our students, with our parents, and with the community at large. I am asking you to please take the time that is necessary to build those positive relationships. I am not asking you to add something else to your plate. I am telling you that relationships are the plate on which everything else is held.
Speaking of relationships, I don’t think I could let our time together today pass without mentioning those who could not be with us today.
I know that many of us have friends, colleagues, family, and loved ones who are experiencing significant challenges — including many health-related concerns. Some of them would be here with us today but they are unable to be here so that they can take care of themselves. Just this week one of our colleagues at one of our schools shared with her colleagues that she will be out of school for a while due to a recent health diagnosis. It’s a familiar story that over time has touched almost everyone in this room. I want to share with you her three requests, and I ask you to take her request to heart.
She asked for these three things:
- Take care of yourself and one another.
- Count your blessings.
- Send prayers and rays of sunshine my way.
So please, let’s all take care of each other, let’s look for and appreciate our blessings, and let’s send positive rays of sunshine to everyone around us. You never know who needs it, or when you might be the one who needs it the most.
As we close this morning, I ask you to think about this upcoming Monday, and this year ahead. Thousands of students will pass through our doors and into your lives. Think about every single student who boards your bus, comes through the cafeteria line, comes to your after school program, suits up for your team, or sits down in your classroom. We have been given the power, the strength, and the opportunity to do great things. We have been given a special opportunity, a gift, to shape the future through these students.
Is this your why? I think it is.
I always want to remind you: You could choose to be doing something else, and because you are choosing to commit your life to the power of positive public education, I sincerely thank you. Thank you for what you do, may God bless you, and may you have a wonderful school year.