One look at the new hand-crafted rocking chair in Mike Dalton’s office made it clear he had one thing on his mind - relaxing.
Officially, Dalton’s last day as Maryville City Schools director is at the end of this calendar year. Friday, Dec. 21, however, was his last day in office as he had vacation time he needed to use.
The rocking chair was a gift from Richard Harbison, the coordinator of facilities at Maryville City Schools and a wood-worker in his spare time. Dalton spent much of his time his last week in the office cleaning out and organizing files and looking back on his almost four decades as an educator.
“I started in 1968 at Everett High School teaching mathematics in Blount County. I almost made it to 40 years,” he said.
His time as an educator was spent in more places than just the classroom. But when he went to Maryville College as a student, did he think he would end up with the type of career that affected so many and put him in the school director’s office of the one best systems in the state?
“Absolutely not, there were no thoughts of anything like this at the time,” said Dalton. “It’s been a strange path to get to this point. I started college thinking I was going into engineering and changed to education when I decided I wanted to teach.”
Dalton taught math four years at Everett High School, did graduate study at UT on a doctorate in education and, at that time, thought he was preparing to be a subject area specialist for the state department.
Instead Dalton went to work for Blount County Schools for eight years as an assistant superintendent. “I got to work on some really neat projects during those eight years,” he said. “We did all the planning, construction and consolidation required to open William Blount and Heritage High schools. It was a really busy time.”
In 1982 he returned to teaching and took a job with the Maryville City Schools in the mathematics department. Dalton did that for four years before taking a position in Nashville as an assistant commissioner of education in charge of Governor Lamar Alexander’s Career Ladder project.
“It was a very challenging position, and I learned a lot about how state government operates and came to respect the complexities of developing a fair evaluation system that would encompass not only regular classroom teachers but also the other types of jobs -- such as principals, supervisors, special education teachers, librarians, counselors.”
Dalton returned to Maryville one year after Lamar Alexander left office. In 1988, he became director of the Maryville City School System.
Dalton said he used his experiences working the Blount County system to help him lead the Maryville City Schools. “The experience in Blount County was really valuable for me because I was able to observe a lot of different leadership systems in schools and developed a philosophy that places the principal as the key ingredient for successful schools. That was based on obviously really great principals,” he said.
Passion for principals
Dalton said he couldn’t name all of the principals he used as examples of this philosophy but two or three came to mind almost immediately. “Sam Blevins at Eagleton Elementary, Lee Roy Painter at Friendsville Elementary School and John Sloan at Rocky Branch Elementary were three guys who demonstrated what I saw as being the type of leadership I would want to see in every school,” he said. “They were very focused on helping every single child learn and making sure the focus of the entire school was on student learning.”
Dalton said that due to the respect people had for these principals personally, they were allowed more leeway in running schools. “I felt like when I had the opportunity, I wanted to establish that approach in our schools and to free principals of some administrative duties so they could concentrate on working with teachers to improve the learning process,” he said. “Fortunately in Maryville I inherited a group of really good principals and all of them were in agreement of the general philosophy, and we were able to make changes that gave them more control of schools very quickly.”
With the changes, Dalton expected his philosophy of leadership to spread. The principals, in turn, needed to operate in a way that allowed the expertise of teachers to be part of the decision-making process, he said. With that core of belief in the way things should operate, Dalton and his team of principals and teachers refined the system a little bit at a time.
“As we made changes, we made sure we had principals who were strong believers in working to improve the learning process for every child, and that everyone in school was part of the decision-making process to make that happen,” he said. “To me it’s been really nice to watch things get better because those folks were making those kinds of decisions.”
Dalton said the difficult times were with decisions that had to be made as the system grew and major changes were made in the structure of the system.
“It’s very difficult to get people to look at possibilities and look at the best way because any changes we made changed the lives of a lot of people. It’s not always easy to change,” he said.
Dalton said he knew that when changes were made, inevitably some people were going to be uncomfortable. “You just have to work through those things,” he said. “When we expanded the elementary program when we built Foothills Elementary, we had to rezone much of the city.”
Dalton said the elementary zone lines changed and two-thirds of students in the city had to change schools. “It was very uncomfortable for a lot of people. It changed routines, and people were not happy,” he said.
Other changes included the school calendar and policies regarding disciplinary processes. “We’ve done away with corporal punishment, which some folks thought would cause us to lose control of the students,” he said. “We found other ways to discipline students that were at least as effective or maybe more effective.”
Dalton said the most difficult part of his job was selecting the right leadership for the schools. “The actual decision-making process in selecting principals has been rather tortuous,” he said. “I’ve hired 11 principals in the 18 years I’ve been here, not a whole lot.”
The retiring schools director said the most rewarding times in office were watching each year as principals and teachers in the system became better at making decisions for the system. “The results have improved. Some of the best times have been looking at the results academically, whether it was test scores, report cards, there has been pretty such continuous improvements,” he said. “It has been always great to feel like the process is working.”
As he looks back, Dalton also remembers certain departments that have brought him satisfaction in his job.
“One of the things I am really proud of -- and I give credit to great leadership among teachers -- is the music areas,” he said. “We’ve had tremendous growth in those programs with our orchestra and band and choral. Those programs are a phenomenal success and so many young people are excelling in areas we weren’t able to offer when we started.”
Dalton said he couldn’t leave out athletics. “I’d have to mention the success of the football team in the last few years. That one is one that is rather unbelievable,” he said.
Dalton said one of his most gratifying moments came recently during a leadership team meeting. The team is made up of principals in the system, the special education director, Assistant Director Stephanie Thompson, who has just been selected to succeed him, and himself.
The principals were talking about what they needed to do and the training they needed to improve their programs, he said. They talked about common needs and the things they could do if they worked together and pooled resources to bring in good, well-known educational consultants.
“Just to listen and watch those principals pull together those things to produce training opportunities for teachers - that’s what you hope will happen,” Dalton said. “It becomes a group activity rather than something directed by leadership. It has demonstrated people can and will work together for a common goal if it’s a worthy goal and they can see the results.”
Dalton praised the choice of Thompson as his successor.
“I have a great admiration for Stephanie Thompson. Not only does she have the intelligence and knowledge to do the job well, she has an unbelievable work ethic and has just absorbed everything she’s come in contact with; I expect her to do very, very well,” he said. “I don’t really have any special advice because we have worked closely for nine years now, and I have probably told her everything I know several times. I just want to encourage everyone else to work with her because she certainly will be a great leader for the school system.”
Teaching on Sundays
While Dalton hasn’t taught math in the classroom in a long time, he crawls around on the floor with students every Sunday. He and his wife, Linda, have taught Sunday School for the 2- and 3-year-old children at Monte Vista Baptist Church for 12 years.
“That is adventuresome at times,” he said. “At that level, it’s not as academic. The challenge is you’re trying to get kids used to staying away from mom and dad for an hour and get them used working with others,” he said. “You’re trying to get part of the five to 10 seconds of concentration they have.”
Dalton said he and his wife have watched as several youngsters they taught in Sunday School have progressed through the Maryville school system. Now the first ones they taught are in the sixth grade.
“We’ve watched them grow. There was one boy, who, as a 2 year old, could not speak clearly. I talked to him right before he started kindergarten this fall, and he was explaining to me he was ‘very nervous’ about starting school,” Dalton said. “For someone to use that kind of terminology, pre-kindergarten, after we worked with him when he was struggling with speaking any words at all. It is amazing to see the development of kids.
“It just reinforces the fact all students are different and all have different rates of learning,” he said.
Dalton said that is a lesson learned and that principals and teachers in the system have learned that students all learn at different rates and in different ways. “There are different rates of development and different ways of learning. Probably the single biggest thing I’ve seen over the last 20 years is we’ve learned so much more about how students learn and that students have different learning styles,” he said.
Dalton said teachers have to be constantly working on improving their skills because they need all the tools they can get to deal with differences among children. Dalton’s time spent sitting on the floor in his Sunday School classroom remind him of the challenges school teachers have each day. “Working with little kids keeps reinforcing the fact that each one is different,” he said. “You have to work in different ways to bring out the best in each one.”
Dalton said his wife has encouraged him for several years to slow down. Now he’s finally heeding her suggestions, he said, with a sideways glance at the rocking chair.
“It’s a difficult job to slow down in because of the constant demands,” he said. “She’s been very encouraging. We’re looking forward to resting awhile and having a chance to think about what we might want to do down the road. We’re looking forward to spending more time doing less.”