Brunswick County Board of Education Vice Chairman John Thompson believes that strengthening schools begins with more support for teachers.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Mark Steelman
John Thompson is an architect and one of his favorite projects was a house that had been incredibly mishandled during construction. He loves fixing problems, learning new things and looking at a project from all angles to determine the best path to success.
“They had three contributing issues that were causing a leak,” Thompson remembers. “And until each of those three items were resolved, the leak wouldn’t go away. So it was really one of those challenging projects. That one was one of my most interesting because it created challenges that I had never faced before.”
And it is this problem-solver, this man who relishes facing challenges head on, who is the new vice-chairman of the Brunswick County Board of Education.
Thompson isn’t new to the board. In fact, he has spent almost eight years on the board and previously served a seven-year term on the Communities in Schools (CIS) of Brunswick County’s Board of Directors. At the end of last year, he took the oath to serve as vice chairman, under new board member and Chairman Ed Lemon.
As vice chairman, Thompson’s stature as a decades-long education problem-solver receives its due.
The problem Thompson seems most intent on solving is the amount of support given to teachers in the school system. Married for 40 years to a former teacher and a current CIS Action for Success Program coach, Thompson has an insider’s perspective. He also has an unshakeable belief that strong schools start with strong teachers.
Because of the emphasis on the role of teachers for a successful education program, Thompson wants the board and the entire county to focus more time and resources to making sure teachers are supported.
“One of the things that ought to be evident to everybody but is rarely talked about is how much we expect so much from our teachers,” he says. “Then we have a 185-day work year, just a little more than the classroom days that the students have, and within that year they are expected to perform all these miracles, be the creative force in a student’s life, inspiring children to learn. We only provide them three or four days of professional time where they can focus on their craft to improve their teaching skills.”
The solution, in Thompson’s mind, is to provide teachers more paid professional development days. He wants the board to encourage internships, mentorships, conferences and classes for teachers. He explains that teachers come out of their college programs and certifications relatively inexperienced for the task that lies ahead of them. Yet they are the most important part of education. This is a glaring disconnect, he believes.
“Every day you walk into that classroom there is a room full of people who are expecting everything you have to offer,” he says. “A lawyer has his or her day in court, but teachers have their day in court every day. The single most important thing, in my mind, that we could do to resolve a number of issues, is to place emphasis and value on the teaching profession. We need to make sure our teachers can become the best they can be, so that every classroom has the most professional instructor possible, so that every classroom has teachers performing at their highest level. This is almost impossible under the current model.”
Helping teachers navigate a demanding profession is a soft spot for Thompson not only because of his wife, but also because of his unique personal history. When Thompson was in first grade, he was diagnosed with a rare blood disease that left him crippled. As the bone in his hip socket deteriorated, Thompson couldn’t walk and was hospitalized.
Although he only completed nine weeks of the first grade, that time is incredibly memorable to Thompson. He can tell stories with startling accuracy about much of his elementary education. He remembers the name of the school bully, how the librarian paddled him for reaching for books beyond his grade level, and how his teachers always defended him. He recalls grammar lessons clearly and can detail the moment he learned to tie his shoes while at school. His teachers left an indelible mark on him, and even though he was a child with a failing body living in rural North Carolina, they helped him receive his education.
Thompson, who fully recovered from the disease, became a bookworm while relegated to the hospital bed and believes learning delivered a promising career and a rich life for him despite being on crutches in high school.
He wants children and students throughout Brunswick County to feel the same sense of hope he felt —that they are capable of anything. And that hope, he believes, starts with the special relationship teachers have with their students. By making support for teachers stronger and more focused, he reasons, only good things can come.