"Teaching is the hardest thing you can do. . . . I think that’s the thing we need to remember: we come up with all these innovations, but at the end of the day, the people who have to do it are the ones who have the hardest jobs," says Rebecca Garland '81 MED, chief academic officer of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction
Rebecca Garland ’81 MED started her undergraduate studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro as a pre-med major. Then she took a course in which she had to dissect a pig. That was the end of her plans for a career in medicine, she says.
She liked history and political science, so she majored in those fields, added a teaching license, and spent a semester student teaching.
After she graduated, on the drive back to her hometown of Dunn, N.C., she stopped by the Harnett County Schools to drop off an application for a teaching job. As she entered the human resources office, a man exited. He had just resigned his teaching position at a middle school because he had been called up to active duty to serve during the Vietnam War. Garland was offered his job. “I took it, and I haven’t looked back,” Garland says.
While serving as a Language Arts and social studies teacher at what was then Harnett Middle School, she earned a master’s in education from Campbell University. She went on to become an instructional specialist and coordinator of gifted programs for the entire Harnett County Schools system before joining the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI) as a regional curriculum specialist and then the director of the statewide program for gifted children. After holding a variety of administrative positions with the Alamance-Burlington Schools and the Orange County Schools, she then served as the executive director of the N.C. State Board of Education.
Today, Garland is back at DPI and beginning her fifth year as the state’s chief academic officer, second in command only to N.C. State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson. Garland’s office is in charge of implementing policy set by the federal government, the state government, and the state Board of Education. She also oversees assessment and accountability, teacher education programs, career/technical education, exceptional children, support to low performing schools, and anything related to curriculum and instruction.
She spoke to Campbell.edu about what she has learned during her career, her vision for public schools in North Carolina, and what it’ll take to make that vision a reality. The following is an edited transcript.
When did you know you made the right decision to get into education?
After the first year I taught. Some teachers, after that first year, they think, “I shouldn’t have done this,” and I thought “This is what I should be doing.”
What was it about education that made it right for you?
I enjoyed being with the students and seeing the direct impact I had on them. I always loved school and the idea of teaching, but I thought I wanted something glamorous, like being a doctor or a legislative liaison. But teaching was where I should have been from the beginning, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I’ve done it from a lot of different perspectives in education, but in my heart I’m a teacher, and I always will be.
What did you learn as a teacher that has stayed with you as an administrator and now chief academic officer?
Every job has been different, but every one of them has better prepared me for the next one and given me a broader context of how it all has to be integrated. I’ve still spent more years in the school systems than at DPI. After I first came to DPI, I journeyed back to the school system side for a while, which has made me better at what I do now, because I was able to see how what we do here at DPI does have an impact at the local level. You can’t lose sight of how policy impacts schools, systems, and children.
Also, teaching is the hardest thing you can do. It’s the hardest job I have ever had. I think that’s the thing we need to remember: we come up with all these innovations, but at the end of the day, the people who have to do it are the ones who have the hardest jobs. And we’re trying to introduce innovations and change what people do without a picture or a model to show them what it ought to look like. The way people typically learn a sport is they have a coach and a model and someone shows them how to do it, and you get to practice. Practice allows you to create a mental memory so that when you do it for real, you have a pattern to follow. We don’t have a pattern for how teachers ought to be teaching today, and we don’t have the resources and time to constantly retrain teachers, because the field is constantly changing with new technologies.
Talk about those changes since you entered education.
Technology has truly disrupted teaching for a lot of different reasons. The technology is ahead of all of us. The kids are always going to be in front of us in what technology can do. They are digital natives and aren’t afraid of it. In fact, in many cases the students are the ones teaching us how to use it. So what we need to do to improve student outcomes is to capture students’ ability to manipulate technology in a way that makes them be critical thinkers, problem solvers, and persistent learners. Learning has to be a partnership between the teacher and the student. That’s not the way most people were taught. It’s a shift. We’re all trying to figure it out together.
What are other challenges facing public schools?
Public schools, I think, are still the most important institution to keep this country strong, and we do the very best we can to personalize each child’s learning experience. But every single person can’t have it his or her way all the time. You have some people who want nine-month schools, for example, and some 12-month schools. There are constant decisions that have to be made, and some people end up not getting what they want. That can be frustrating to individuals who in many endeavors can have their way. But we have to look for the common good. Public schools will always be a compromise. You have to come up with the best way to meet the needs of children to the extent that you can. That’s challenging.
What are your hopes for public schools?
I’d like to see us to be able to meet the learning needs of all students with the tools and technology that we have available to us now, and I’d like to see the schools keep up with the times with innovation. We have the technology and know-how to meet students where they are and move them as far as they can go. It’s a different way of teaching and requires extensive professional development, but we could do it. And I’d like to see more education options for students that are nonconventional, such as more early college high schools, more apprenticeships in businesses, more high tech career courses that lead to industry credentials, and more virtual courses through our N.C. Virtual High School, which is the second largest in the country. Space is typically our only barrier to adding so many more options for students. If we can do more with virtual education, then maybe we don’t have to build so many huge expensive schools in the future. So I’d like to see schools that have lots of options for kids so they can make school what they want it to be with teachers flexible enough to help them get them there. I’d also like to see a better prepared teaching force and a teaching force that is respected.
What will it take to have a better prepared teaching force?
First, that’s not a knock on the universities. It’s not their issue alone. We all need to figure out what knowledge and skills teachers need to deal with the students of today and prepare them for an ever more competitive economic environment, and we have to be able to clearly articulate that. We’re still struggling with that, but we work constantly with our partners in higher education to try to figure it out.
What’s your advice to those considering a teaching career?
Be well read and keep up with the world around you because that makes you a more interesting person. The more you know about a wide variety of topics, the more likely you’ll be able to talk with students about things that interest them. The more you can talk about something that interests students, the better you can connect with them.
Also, understand how government works. Understand the differences between the federal and state government and differences among the local school systems, the state Board of Education, and the state superintendent’s office. You need to know how decisions flow so you can understand how you’re positioned in a larger system and how you’re impacted by policy and decisions. If you can understand how policy and decisions are made, you can better self-advocate.
Finally, find time to do something that you enjoy on an ongoing basis so you can get your mind off of work every once in a while. That’s hard to do. I dream about this place and its challenges. I dream about my work.
What makes it worth it?
It's the right thing to do.
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Interview conducted by and edited by Cherry Crayton, Digital Content Coordinator
Photos by Bennett Scarborough