A conversation with Rob Britt, director of schools

Rob Britt poses at home with his family. Standing are Rob and older son Robbie. Seated are younger son, Reece; wife, Kim; and daughter Rachel.

Photo by Leslie Karnowski

Rob Britt poses at home with his family. Standing are Rob and older son Robbie. Seated are younger son, Reece; wife, Kim; and daughter Rachel.

Rob Britt considers himself the head cheerleader for excellence in Blount County Schools. He’s even willing to pull on tights and a cape to motivate students to achieve high test scores.

Britt, 48, who became schools director on July 1, was principal at Carpenters Middle School for eight years. One of the tools he used to motivate students to do well on the annual TCAP tests was through his alter ego, Capt. TCAP.

“I would dress up for the part with tights and a cape and a ‘T’ on my chest and run around calling myself Capt. TCAP. What we were trying to achieve was to motivate the students to do their very best on TCAPs,” he said. “I used to say to them, ‘Regardless of where you are, you’ve learned a lot of things. We want to have that reflected on how you perform on this test.’”

Britt said that attitude spawned TCAP pep rallies. “Our teachers would participate. They would do skits and sing and do music. Kids loved seeing teachers act and do something different,” he said. “It worked for us.”

But would he pull on the Capt. TCAP mask and tights to motivate students across the county?

“I don’t know that I would recommend it. Tights are the most uncomfortable thing I’ve had on my body, but it worked,” he said.

Growing up

Britt said when he sees students from broken homes struggling with grades, he can empathize. “I grew up in a little town, Waynesboro, Penn., near Gettysburg. My mom and dad were divorced,” he said. “That was a challenging time for me. I was 8 and growing up without that daily interaction with a father figure around the house. Looking back on it, I could always relate to my students who came from broken homes. I came from one, too.”

Britt said just growing up as a teenager in a small town, school life in general was a challenge.

“School didn’t come easy. That’s why I relate to young people who struggle a bit and have to work hard. I had to work hard to get good grades. My best friend in high school would never take a book home, and he would make A’s on tests,” he said. “I took both books home and studied like crazy, and I would be lucky to make a C.”

His father, Larry Britt, was the head of communications for Site-R in Blue Ridge Summit, Penn. “It was known as the Little Pentagon, a big hole in the mountain. Part of his job was communications. It was spying on the Russians in the Cold War,” Britt said. “He had an interesting job, one that took him away from his family a good bit. I lived with my mother, Kay Britt, and we lived with my grandmother Mildred Manon. My mother’s brother Gene and her sister Jo also lived at our home.”

Britt said he was an only child but growing up in that household and sharing things with his mother, uncle, aunt and grandmother in the house mirrored a brother-sister kind of relationship. “My grandmother was head of our household. She probably had the biggest influence on my life,” he said.

Britt endured some challenging times at age 16 after his mother was in a very serious auto accident. “She came very close to death. That was a tremendous, life-changing experience,” he said. “She spent six weeks to two months in the hospital.”

People of influence

Britt said his desire to achieve at a high level stems from his grandmother. “That’s what I saw her do in her life. She gave so much to her family and worked a full-time job to boot. She made three meals a day from scratch. She worked seven and eight hours a day at a job in hospital, washed all the clothes, washed dishes. She was an early riser and was late to bed. I learned a great work ethic from just watching her,” he said.

Britt said his mother also had that great work ethic. “She became an educator as I was growing up, went back to school and graduated with her bachelor’s degree the same year I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in 1984,” he said. “She has always worked with juvenile delinquents. She works at Maryland Correctional Institute in Hagerstown, Maryland. She teaches prisoners to read and get their GED.”

Britt said he was an athlete in school, and his first goal was to become a physical education teacher and coach. Then he discovered he really enjoyed singing.

“My choir director in high school -- Gerald Kowallis -- came to me one day and asked if I would consider trying out for all-state chorus in Pennsylvania,” he said. “Reluctantly I did it, and I made it. I went and had this life-changing experience that set my views and goals toward wanting to become a musician and a high school choral director.”

Britt graduated in 1984 from Shenandoah University and Conservatory of Music. His major professor, David Stutzenberger, had left after Britt’s sophomore year to become head of the choral music department at the University of Tennessee.

“After I graduated, he offered me a full graduate assistantship. That’s how I got to Tennessee. I studied at UT and received my master’s degree in 1986,” he said.

Britt said Stutzenberger was another great influence in his life. “There really were three men I look back on and say, ‘Those gentleman filled that gap for me.’ My Uncle Gene, Gerald Kowallis and David Stutzenberger,” he said.

It was at UT that he fell in love with East Tennessee, and Liz, the woman who would become his wife.

“I met my wife in the choir at UT. She was in the concert choir. My very first memory was that here was this good-looking young lady who sat on the third row on the end. She was an alto,” he said. “I wanted to sit on the fourth row directly behind her. That’s how we met.”

Britt said they dated for two years before he proposed, and then they were engaged for two years. “We made an agreement we wouldn’t marry until she had her bachelor’s degree. She graduated on Aug. 13, and we got married on Aug. 20,” he said.

Going to work

Britt said after he and Liz married, he had to find a job.

“Galen Johnson gave me an interview at William Blount High School and selected me to come there as a choir teacher in 1986,” he said.

Britt said he worked for eight years as choir director at WBHS. He started with 90 students. Within three years, the program grew to five classes with more than 300 students.

“It was really a shock to kids when I first got there. I don’t believe they were used to working that hard in choir,” he said. “They did a good job before I got there, but they weren’t used to setting goals and seeing choir as something to compete in. We competed in festivals locally, on the state-level and even at the national festival.”

It was while Britt was at WBHS that people began asking if he would consider getting into administration.

“I was a high school choir teacher, and I was impacting young people’s lives in a positive way. It became apparent, however, that I could have an impact in a different way. It felt very much like God was leading me in a different direction,” he said.

Britt earned his second masters degree, this one in administration and supervision. In 1994 he became assistant principal at William Blount High School.

Fighting cancer

Britt said the biggest challenge and darkest day of his life came when he was diagnosed with colon cancer in January of 1996. “That definitely was a life-changing experience. Everything that seemed so vitally important didn’t seem so important any more,” he said. Britt said cancer made him appreciate and focus on God, his family and his friends.

“It changed my perspective. I don’t sweat small things as much as I used to,” he said.

The cancer was caught at an early stage. Surgeons removed part of his colon and no chemotherapy was needed.

“I was very blessed. I’m 12 years out from that cancer, and I’m considered cured. Now I just do periodic check ups.”

Britt said the best things that have ever happened to him were the births of his three children. Robbie is 16, Rachel is 14, and Reece is 7.

“Growing up an only child, I wanted to have two or more children. It’s sort of funny. We had Rob and Rachel, and we put off a third child,” he said. “When I got well, five years later, we had our later-in-life child.”

Building relationships

Britt praised his mentor, then principal and now current school board member John Davis, for giving him direction. “He taught me a lot about how to build relationships with people and how important that was. Education really is a people-driven business. Everything is centered around building positive relationships. That is something I learned from him,” he said. “That prepared me well to become a principal.”

In January of 2000 he was named principal at Carpenters Middle School. “I had the opportunity to open a brand new school, select the staff, put in place the curriculum and programs. It was very rewarding to be able to do that,” he said. “I wanted to do something that was different. I didn’t want to have an ordinary experience for teachers, students and parents of that community.”

Britt said he and his staff tried motivational activities for the teachers as well as the students.

“We might have blaring loud music for a faculty meeting. People would dance and give high fives and motivate each other. We had the kind of environment where people would look forward to going to a meeting or to school. That is the culture we attempted to build,” he said.

Britt said there were some bad days along the way, but there were enough positive motivational days to make others seem insignificant.

“There’s a positive energy running from beginning to end,” he said. “We built relationships and worked on the school culture to make kids feel like they belonged.”

Being prepared

Britt said he never dreamed he would become director of schools.

“I was never interested in being anything other than a principal for long, long time,” he said. “I think it was encouragement I received from some school leaders.”

Britt attended an intensive 16-day training seminar for prospective school directors and graduated from it on Feb. 6, 2009. “I was thinking about how I would utilize the training at Carpenters when (schools director Alvin Hord) came to the February principal’s meeting and announced his retirement.”

Britt opted to try for the position just to go through the application and interview process. On April 20, he was named the next schools director.

“It happened so quickly. I’m very privileged and honored to serve in this capacity,” he said. “I really feel I was called to do this, or I wouldn’t be here. This is where the Lord wants me to be, and I really take this position very seriously.”

Starting early

Britt said he normally gets out of bed by 5:30 a.m., has a brief time of prayer and reflection and then heads to work. If he’s not at his office, often Britt is in the schools, meeting with parents, teachers, students and administrators.

“My schedule is packed each day. I relish the fact I have tremendous help. I have these wonderful experienced educators in the form of teachers and assistants and supervisory staff at Central Office,” he said. “I’m not driving this ship through a challenging journey by myself. I realize it takes all of us working to move our mission forward.”

Britt said he likes to work out at the end of a busy day and then head home to his family. “All my children are either involved in sports like football and baseball and my daughter Rachel is in dance with Van Meter School of Dance,” he said.

Liz is a teacher at the Webb School in Knoxville and this is where their children attend school. Britt said that while he is director of Blount County Schools, his children attended Webb before he took the job.

“Before I ever dreamed of becoming director of schools, that was a family choice we made that where Liz was teaching, that is where our children would go to school,” he said. “When people hear that, they generally don’t have a problem with it. One of good things from this is that Liz is right there with them on campus and can oversee what is going on. I think every parent would like to have the opportunity to be close to their children’s educational progress and monitor it closely.”

Britt said having his wife on campus at Webb with the children works well for the family. “I’m sure some people may have an issue with it, but I want to assure them it doesn’t affect how I approach the Blount County School System.”

Focus on the end result

One of the maxims Britt is known to use when encouraging students to make good decisions is to always “begin with the end in mind.”

With that thought, Britt shared some of the goals he hopes he accomplishes during his tenure.

“I think that I would like to walk out the door and say I was relentless in focusing our school system around the theme of achieving excellence for all students and maximizing the academic potential of every child. I would like to say that we raised the achievement level, that we’re competitive with anyone in the State of Tennessee,” he said.

Britt said he wants graduates from Blount County Schools to have received a high-quality educational experience that allows them to compete at every level for college scholarships and career opportunities.

“I think when I leave, people will say, ‘Rob led a balanced life. Yes, he gave it all he had, 100 percent, to the school system, but he also balanced that with being a family man. He gave everything he had to his wife and children and made them his first priority.’”

Britt said he wants to always stay focused on performing at the highest level.

“I need to perform at a high level. If I perform at a high level, everyone else will, too,” he said.

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