Posts Tagged ‘Muskogee Public Schools’

Sometimes, Knowing is Enough

November 22, 2015 2 comments

It’s that time of year when we all share things that make us thankful. As with most people, I have many blessings about which I can reflect this year. One of them is that I’ve had the opportunity to impact so many young lives throughout my career. Because of social media, many of my former students even let me know what they’re doing with their lives.

I started my career at West Middle School in Muskogee (which isn’t even a school anymore) in 1993. These were my eighth grade students, and my sixth grade academic team.

I was only there a year, but I had a great principal and great colleagues on our eighth grade team. I’ve occasionally seen names of students from this group on Facebook, but there are only a couple who I really know anything about. I would say this group probably shaped who I became more than I shaped them.

My years at Mustang High School, however, have given me many friends – both from among the colleagues I had, and the students I taught. Since I left the classroom in 2002, all the students I ever taught are in their 30s now. They have families and careers. Some are even teachers. Some have found happiness and success. Some have found hard times. I told them all that when they graduate from high school, they need to get used to calling me Rick, rather than Mr. Cobb, since it was my intent that they become my peer as adults.

Of all the groups I taught, I probably have the fondest memories of the students I had the good fortune to keep for two years. At the end of the 98-99 school year, I had been teaching freshman for four years. I had two sections of regular English and three sections of honors English. Because one of our teachers was moving into an assistant principal position, I had the opportunity to move up. On the first day of school, rather than covering the syllabus and the student handbook, I opened with, “so, when we left off in May…” and then we started learning.

This was before I had ever read anything about building relationships with students and how much that impacts their learning. It was just obvious to me. When I was coaching volleyball, and I had some of my players in class, it was easy to connect with them. The better you know your students, the better you can teach them. It’s not rocket surgery.

This is also the group of students I taught that has connected with me as adults in the greatest numbers. The two pictures below show my honors classes from that year. Of the students pictured, I’m friends with 25 of them on Facebook. I’ve actually seen most of them since they finished high school, which is even more notable since I left Mustang the year they graduated.

Some would come back to me when they were juniors and seniors and ask for advice with their AP papers. Even after I moved to Medford as a principal, I had students who reached out to me.

The last year I was in the classroom, I had a student named CM. He was funny and smarter than he knew. What he probably didn’t realize was that when we were discussing some story or a writing topic, I would give him a little latitude to circle around to the point. He didn’t always take the most direct line from the question to the answer. He made it there, but indirectly. And he’d stick the landing. It was worth the processing time to get to the result.

It was with CM’s class that I stopped in the middle of a class discussion one day in April and just stared blankly at my students. I had already accepted the Medford job and was in the process of selling a house and changing everything. I just had this clear moment of what I was leaving behind. After a few silent, awkward moments, one of the students asked me if I was ok. I said something along the lines of how I just had realized everything I was giving up. My job was to discuss books I love with some of the most interesting people in the world. It was like Oprah, but without her paycheck.

I still think that’s a pretty cool job.

Eight months later, as I was in my office getting ready for a much needed break, I got a phone call from Mustang. It was CM and two other students from that class. They just wanted to tell me Merry Christmas and ask me how I liked being a principal. We probably talked for five minutes or so, and that was that.

Until this August, I hadn’t heard from CM for nearly 13 years. Out of nowhere, I received this Facebook message:

Hey Mr. Cobb, this is CM… I had you for AP English II at Mustang.., I am doing my student teaching at Mustang this semester and I have sophomores in English II LOL… My mom said I needed to friend you on Facebook and I thought it was a good idea so I sent you a request and here is a message attached. Anyway, I just thought I would say hello and let you know what I was doing… Just FYI I wanted to let you know you are a big reason why I decided to go into teaching. You were a great teacher, awesome person, and a great influence so thank you for everything!

I love it when my former students become teachers. I quickly tried to hire him because, well, you know, there’s a teacher shortage. Mostly, I just love hearing stories about how the people I taught turned out. I know their parents influenced more than I did. I know they had other teachers. But when one of them takes the time to tell me that something I did shaped their life in a positive way, I feel like I’m watching a SportsCenter highlight of myself.

After leaving the classroom, I spent two years as a principal, four years as a state employee, and then seven in the central office before becoming a superintendent. For the last 11 years, I haven’t had the direct day-to-day contact with kids. I have made friends at each of those places. I have provided training for teachers all over the state and developed a professional network that I treasure. I know that my work has made a difference. And sometimes, knowing is enough.

But I have to take it on faith. I don’t see the students and watch them from May to August. Sure, principals can give me their data points, but I think we all know how I feel about data points. They’re not people.

I knew once I left the classroom, I would never have that kind of relationship with students again. If anything, that’s probably what motivates me to be in schools as much as I can be right now. I love opportunities to work with kids, but more than that, I get to see teachers building those relationships with students, and with families. I take selfies with classes because it reminds me why we do what we do.

Sometimes, though, I get messages that my nine years in the classroom mattered to someone else besides me. And for that, I’m thankful.





Welcome to New Teachers

August 9, 2015 3 comments

Tomorrow, I get to welcome new teachers to Mid-Del Public Schools. I’ve been involved in new teacher training for the last seven years while I was in Moore, but this is my first run at it as a superintendent. I feel I have more to say than I have time for, and I’m not well-known for sticking to a script once I get going – especially when coffee and donuts are in my line of sight. For those of you who made tomorrow’s schedule, I apologize in advance.

With that in mind, here’s what I would like to say, again, if the script mattered.


Welcome to Mid-Del Public Schools! For the next 9 months, and hopefully longer, you will be responsible for educating the 14,500 students in this school district. First of all, we want to thank you for accepting that responsibility. These are children who need you, who need a good education, who need to know that what we do everyday has relevance to their lives.

We have school for one purpose – to teach children. Parents send their kids to us for one reason – so they can learn.

Before that, though, we have to promise those parents one critical thing – that we can keep their children safe. We have to be on our toes because with this many children and thousands of adults around, we have a lot of moving parts. We all know what it means to treat each other with respect and with dignity. Most of the people who work for us know it too. I’d even go so far as saying that most of our children know it too. It’s an inherent quality – maybe it’s the golden rule. Whether we’ve formally been taught this or not, we know from an early age that we want to feel safe and that other people do too. That’s why you see children run to hug other crying children that they don’t even know.

Most of us understand this, but unfortunately, there are no absolutes when it comes to human behavior. There will be students, teachers, even parents who cross these lines. Some may not even realize they’re doing it, and what we’re left with are students who hate school from an early age.

Think about a four year old you’ve known in your life. If you’re a parent who’s driven your children across the country, did they try to count to 100 or to whatever high number they could reach? Did they sing? If you stopped at a national monument or a historical marker, did they listen intently as you read it to them? A four year old who can’t read, but who has been exposed to parents who not only can, but do, will pick up a book and make up a story. A four year old will play in the dirt, swing from a tree limb, dance, and color on the walls. They’ll even watch TV and learn a foreign language if you show it to them.

When you think about it, there isn’t a single academic content area that a four year old WON’T participate in. So why does that change? Do we do something to change it?

First of all, not all of the children we get are anything like the four year olds we were or the ones that we have raised. Some children come to us hungry and scared. And some just come and go, come and go. Our job then, is to teach them as well as we can for as long as we have them, and to remember that we might be the best experience they ever have in school.

Sometimes, the difference we make is obvious. We see students succeed academically. They win awards. They get scholarships. They come back from college and slap us on the back and tell us they never would have made it without us. Sometimes, though, we don’t see it at all.

I’ve carried a note around with me from job to job for the last 17 years. It was written by a freshman who was having a bad day. Apparently, I said something to help. She wrote: 

Mr. Cobb,

I just want to thank you for your concern. Not many people would take the time to ask how someone was doing. My friends don’t even seem to care sometimes. Thank you again. It means a lot to me.

At the time I received the note, I didn’t remember what I had said to her. Years and jobs later, I really don’t recall. I messaged that student on Facebook a few weeks ago and showed her a picture I took of the note. She remembered it even better than I did.

student letter

Maybe another story illustrates our importance even better. One time when I was a principal, the chief of police was waiting for me in my office at 7:00 am on a Monday. We had a student – a ninth grader – whose parents had been in a fight the night before. It took all night to get the dad out of the house and get him to jail. Our student, who was often in trouble and really didn’t care about school, also had his own temper. Little things would set it off. This was no little thing.

I addressed my staff that morning at our scheduled faculty meeting and gave them the details I could. Since this was a small school and everybody knew everybody, there wasn’t a teacher who didn’t need to know that the student would be even more on edge that day. Towards the end of the meeting, I asked them to show some understanding, and if he needed to excuse himself from class because he was about to explode, that they needed to let him come see me voluntarily. One teacher stood up and said, “But Mr. Cobb, rules are rules!” Without thinking, I responded, “Yeah, but we have to love the kids more than we love the rules.” I think for most of my teachers, that was my defining moment as principal.

Rules are important. We can’t have chaos in our classrooms, our halls, our lunchrooms, our playgrounds, or on our buses. We also have to know when to bend. You have to love the kids more than you love the rules. You have to love the kids more than you love lots of things: the rules, your test scores, your won-loss record, your quiet little piece of the master schedule.

First, you love the kids. Then you keep them safe. Then you teach them.

So before we get to the first thing, we have two other things. Yes, school is about teaching and learning. Yes, it’s ok if you love physics or Spanish or English or programming or music. You should be passionate about what you teach. You should just be more passionate about who you teach.

How many times have we heard about the impact of music on math and literacy scores? While this is undeniable, what we forget is the impact of music, and art, and drama, and reading, and just all around curiosity, on the soul. All of these things matter in their own right, not just for some outcome tied to high-stakes testing.

Four year olds get this. We should too.

Let me close with a few words that I wrote last year at this time.

Work hard and contribute something. Be the first teacher that some student has ever liked. Don’t try to measure everything. Take pictures of the first group of students you teach and look at them from time to time. Make friends at work and defend your profession fiercely. Treasure your mentors. Cherish what you do. Most importantly, if you ever get to the point that you don’t love working for the children every day, leave. And if that’s the path you choose, leave on the highest note possible.

Those comments were written specifically for first year teachers, but I think they apply to all of us. I could tell you who my mentors have been, and rest assured, I treasure them. I also still have the picture of the first group of kids I taught in Muskogee in 1993. 

For all the evidence my students have given me through the years that I’ve made an impact in their lives, I have more proof, tangible and personal, that they have made mine better. I used to say that your career doesn’t define who you are. I quit saying that a few years ago. This is who I am. I’m an educator. I’ve done this for half my life now. There’s no denying it. I’m proud of it, and I hope you will be too. I hope you’ll tell the world, too, after this year, two very important things:

  1. This is a great profession.
  2. This is a great place to work.

Have a great year!

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