Leading by Example With Dr. Thomas S. Tucker
An Interview By Milton Whipple
[ Prior to interviewing Dr. Thomas S. Tucker, I googled him to become familiar with his career and who he may be as a person. It was impressive to read and see such high accolades regarding an African American man. I am an African American man also, and it was truly inspiring to read about some of Dr. Tucker’s accomplishments. Dr. Tucker is from a small, rural town and was raised in an era where black people did not have the same opportunities as today. The many obstacles and challenges Dr. Tucker had to overcome to get to the point he is at in his life and career is nothing short of iconic. Dr. Tucker is the epitome of a highly educated professional. Before I reached out to schedule the interview, I was already honored to have the opportunity. ]
What is your name and role in education?
My name is Thomas S. Tucker and I am the Superintendent for the Douglas County School District. My role in education is to improve and save the lives of our students, staff, and community members.
How long have you been in education? How long have you been in the role of Superintendent?
I took my first professional teaching job circa August 9, 1989, in Topeka, Kansas at Jardine Middle School. I have been in education thirty-one years and Superintendent for twelve years. The end of this year will mark the beginning of my thirteenth year. Prior to becoming Superintendent, I spent two years [2006-2008] as a Director of secondary education curriculum in a large suburban school district in Ohio. I became Superintendent after that and have been serving continuously every since.
What is your philosophy of on delegating authority? How do you maintain accountability?
I delegate authority, or influence as I prefer to call it. I think I have more influence because of the relationships that I build with the people that I serve. I have the opportunity to serve and build relationships based upon trust. Knowing that we hire the right people with the right skills to go about doing their jobs is the foundation. It starts with hiring people who love children and have a passion for what they do! We build strong, trusting relationships with them on top of the requisite skills they already have to create a joint vision together. I am a huge part of that vision creation. It is my job to clear all obstacles out of the way and allow people to lead. Accountability starts with creating a shared vision. Everyone should know the mission of their institution and what their shared vision is. From there goals are created and everyone is held accountable for their three or four goals. The objective is not to create a thousand goals or try to be an overachiever. The objective is to be the best in our district for our students, staff, and community. The shared vision is created together, and goals are adapted to influence improvement.
How do you measure success in education?
Success is measured one student and one staff member at a time. It is not just test scores; it is a multitude of things. It is both the road test and the written test. I always start with the road test. How many students and staff members feel great about what they are accomplishing? How many of them feel great about their school experience? Do they feel that someone is there who cares about them? We have an obligation to go beyond the learning that is taking place in the community. It is important to serve and be an active part of our communities. Once these connections are made, the academic part becomes relatively easy.
How important is parent involvement in a student’s success?
Student success begins and ends with parents, grandparents, and other family members. Community involvement is also another contributing factor to a student’s overall success. I look at any success I have had, and I must acknowledge my grandparents and parents. My grandparents were sharecroppers and they taught each other how to read. In Arkansas at that time, it was still illegal for colored people to go to school. My great-grandparents were slaves. I attribute any success I have had to my grandparents and parents. My grandparents played a huge role in educating their own kids, but also had an everlasting impact on their neighbors. My grandparents were bold enough in Cottonplant, Arkansas to teach other sharecroppers how to sell and market their cotton. They were involved in the Civil Rights Movement before there was ever such a thing. When you look at a civil rights movement for women and people of color, it is about mobilizing and improving working, living, and educational conditions. It is about economically being able to take care of your family and not being dependent upon others for your prosperity. Therefore, it is important for parents and families to be involved.
Why do you think it is important for black students to see themselves represented in education?
I think it is important for all students, especially African Americans students and students of color, to see representations of themselves in education. Research shows that there is an influence on the outcomes of black kids, especially when they see role models who look like themselves. In the last study I researched, black kids who have a teacher of color (a female teacher in particular) before they finish fifth grade were forty-five times more likely to graduate high school. It is important to have representation. As our world continues to change and shift underneath our feet, all students of color and students who are part of the LGBTQ community need to have someone who is compassionate and looks like them. As an African American, I also contribute much of my early success to my African American teachers. My teachers were huge role models in my education and in planning and helping me plan for life after high school. Schools were still segregated back then, yet my teachers finished at the top of their classes and were dedicated to help me make something of myself. After strong parental support, teachers are the second most important indicators as to whether an individual is going to graduate from high school. Having a highly qualified teaching staff that is compassionate and dedicated to students plays the second biggest role in the outcome of people, especially African Americans.
What are some lessons you have learned or currently learning in your role?
Each student matters! We have to fight each and every day for every student. During this pandemic, every student in America is at risk.
How do you think the educational system will adapt to COVID-19?
The American educational system has been around for nearly 400 years. Dating back to the first public school, the Boston Latin School in Massachusetts. If you were not white, did not own any slaves, or were not a Christian; you could not attend. We survived that. We survived the Civil Rights Movement. We survived mandatory busing in the 70’s. We survived H1N1 in 2008 and we are going to survive this. We live in the toughest and most resilient country in the world. Our public education system is the most resilient in this world. I have had a chance to study systems across the world but there is no educational system like the American public education system. We open our arms and educate all students under tremendous challenges. Our system is almost 400 hundred years old and we still prevail. We will get through this.
What role do you think extracurricular activities play in education?
It is huge! I talked earlier about the written test and the road test. Extracurricular and co curricular activities are part of the road test. They help shape a student. I am proud to be a part of the Douglas County School District because we sincerely believe in educating and focusing on the whole child. We want to make sure our students receive a top-notch education, which they can use to compete with students across this planet. We also want students to understand and appreciate art, music, athletics, and other extracurricular activities. For some of our students, one of their main motivators is the arts, choir, and athletics. We do a great job here at the Douglas County School District focusing on the whole child, not just the academics. We provide our students with choices and opportunities to thrive in any type of environment.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
I get it from my parents, grandparents, former teachers, etc. but it is also in my soul. Particularly when you look at poor children of color or students with special needs of color coming from low-income families. They deserve a chance to learn. To learn skills at a very high level will help build a future that will help them live out their dreams. I had teachers and other people who really inspired me by telling me and showing me that I could be anything that I wanted to be. I come from a very large family; I am the youngest of eleven children. I was born in 1965 without the passage of the Civil Rights Act. My parents would have had eleven children born in their home had it not been from the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Ironically, I was the only one out of eleven children born in a hospital.
Do you have a quote you live by?
It is a very spiritual quote, but it is really simple. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Regardless of who they are or where they come from, it is ultimately all about what a person is made of.
What are some of your biggest wins you have experienced as an educator?
My biggest win as whole, which motivates me to be an educator was being born in a hospital. It means a lot to be the first of my parent’s children to be born in a hospital. However, I was born two months prematurely and I weighed only three pounds, eight ounces. The physician who delivered me said to my parents it was new for a black child to be born in the hospital I was born in, yet along to be in the nursery. There were some white parents who were a little leery about me being in the nursery with their kids. Less than twenty-four hours later my parents took me home to a two-bedroom shotgun house with my ten siblings. We had a pot-bellied stove to keep us warm and no running water. My religious upbringing is also a big part of who I am, and my family prayed over me and I still thank God to this day for allowing me to be healthy. I have been named National Superintendent of the Year twice, once in 2013 and again in 2016. I have also been named National Educator of the Year once. I am a member of many local and national educational committees, including (but not limited to) the National Alliance of Black School Educators.
As it relates to people who look like you and I, what advice would you give a young minority pursuing a leadership position such as yours?
I go back to the advice that my people and teachers have given me. You must develop hard work and dedication. For so long education has been our passport and it is still our passport if you choose to pursue any type of degree. You must work for those and sometimes twice as hard. If you dedicate yourself to working hard then you can realize your dreams. It is also important to rely on those who come before you as well. It is essential to have a feeling or desire to give back. There are challenges people of color deal with that the majority does not. It is important to embrace that challenge of making things better for the people who come after us. We must pay it forward! I believe in paying it forward to the next person. Some of the challenges I have had to face and endure, I will make sure people who come after me do not. Our society has changed for the better. When you think about Brown vs. the Board of Education or the crisis at Central High. People like you and I could not get into those places. We were spat on, beaten, and hit with rocks and bottles for no reason. So, we have come a long way but we still have a long way to go. As black people, we need to rededicate ourselves to education and the power that public education can provide us to help level the playing field. I say to our young people, do not give up! Do not give up on your education! Do not give up on improving yourselves! And do not give up on the generations that will come after you! It is important to continue the fight for racial equity and justice.
What do you want your legacy to be as superintendent?
I have worked with many demographics. I have worked in an urban school district; a wealthy, suburban school district; a large, mostly African American inner-city school district; a small urban school district; and now I am here in Douglas County. I want to be remembered as a standing bearer who held himself to high educational standards and held students, staff members, and community members to high educational standards as well. I also want to be remembered as using education as a vehicle to improve our community, while improving and saving lives.
[ It was very rewarding and insightful to have the chance to interview Dr. Tucker. He is a very humble guy with a very kind spirit. Almost immediately, Dr. Tucker informed me to refer to him as Thomas. Considering that he is two-time National Superintendent of the Year, Dr. Tucker did not focus much on his awards and accolades. As a matter of fact, the Public Information Officer had to take a moment to “brag” on Dr. Tucker’s awards that he put the hard work in to achieve. Dr. Tucker’s upbringing and background allows him to use his platform to further advance the African American culture. Dr. Tucker spoke with a lot of passion and it was evident that he has always had a passion to make his mark on the world. Dr. Tucker has dedicated his life to make the world a better place, especially for people who had a similar upbringing as himself. Dr. Tucker will be retiring in the next couple of years and reminded me that it is important that we all continue carrying the torch. ]