Excellence against the odds

March 5, 2013 

Often the best lessons are found on a journey to an unrelated event. Such was the case last Friday evening when I visited WXIA in Atlanta to discuss sequestration on the 11 p.m. newscast. The format is now somewhat familiar. I was to be asked a couple of questions from anchor Melissa Long, as would be Mike Berlon, chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia. We did the segment live in the first bloc of the newscast.

Mr. Berlon and I have done this a few times, and we generally expect to agree to disagree and shake hands following until next time. But during this visit, we also met another gentleman as we were each being let into the building who was also to appear later in the same broadcast.

The man was Dale Duncan, a music teacher from DeKalb County's Henderson Middle School. Earlier that day, Duncan had been notified that he was the recipient of a national "Lifechanger of the Year" teaching award. Duncan was nominated for the award by four of his students. 11Alive's reporter Jerry Carnes had filed a report for the 6 p.m. newscast detailing Duncan's surprise upon being notified of the honor, and he had been asked to chat with Long on the 7 p.m. newscast to discuss his achievement.

We all had some time to chat together before the newscast, and it was quite refreshing to be able to witness Mr. Duncan's reaction to his honor near the end of a day that had earlier just started as an ordinary workday. As someone who attended 12 years within the same public school system and knew most of my teachers and school administrators on a personal level, it was thoroughly enjoyable to see an outstanding educator be given thanks for what is all too often a thankless job.

Duncan's prize was juxtaposed with the backdrop of what has been an ongoing saga with his school system. Earlier that same day, members of the school board set to be replaced by Governor Nathan Deal were having a hearing in federal court seeking to block their removal. The county remains locked in a battle to make necessary improvements that will enable it to maintain accreditation. Late Monday afternoon, the judge ruled that the governor has the power to remove the six designated board members.

As the boards battle and the legal efforts take their course, it is important to remember that over 99,000 students continue to report to school every day, and that educators are there to teach, guide, and shape. The blemish put on the school system doesn't mean these folks aren't still trying to do their jobs under even more difficult circumstances. And as Duncan's award signifies, many are succeeding despite the problems further up the chain of administration.

I was lucky enough to experience many excellent teachers during my years in Fayette County schools. At the time, it was the kind of school system that folks from around the metro Atlanta area chose to relocate so that they too could send their children to our classrooms. We didn't have the kinds of struggles that most public educators have to deal with today. We never came close to the overall issues that DeKalb is facing.

Duncan received a bit of hero's treatment on Friday. And every bit of it was deserved. It is hard enough to be a public school teacher in today's environment. It is harder still to excel. To excel in an environment when your top level leadership is being removed for cause is excellence in its highest degree.

Circumstances and fortunes change over time. The Fayette County schools that were always growing and getting better announced the closing of four schools Monday due to budget problems. DeKalb's fortunes can change, too, but there appears to be more room on the upside than for that of a continued spiral.

Leadership problems at the top are being addressed to restore the administration to a firm footing. In the meantime, it's an honor to have met Dale Duncan and know that he and others like him are getting the job done at the ground level -- where it counts.

Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.

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