As the Muscogee County School District superintendent started his pep talk for about 70 new teachers at their orientation Monday, he acknowledged what was obvious to anybody who follows local news.
"Some of you already have been here a lot longer than I have, because I've been here for about six days," said David Lewis, a 34-year educator who had spent his entire career in Polk County (Fla.) Public Schools until last week.
Most recently, Lewis was the associate superintendent for learning in Polk County, whose 95,000-student district is triple the size of Muscogee. But it was a story from 2005, when he was Principal of the Year in Florida, that the former band instructor shared to make his key point.
Schmoozing with the elite at a black-tie affair in Tampa Bay, some bigwigs told Lewis they wouldn't do his job.
Lewis smirked, "Who says you could?"
Fast-forward to Monday at Midland Middle School, where Lewis directed his orientation lesson toward its crescendo.
"Not everybody can do what we do," he continued. "You went to school to be trained to be professional educators. I want you to be proud of that.
"And I want you to also realize this: The students you serve each and every day, you are probably the most stable, constant part of their lives, for many of them. You are their hope, you are their inspiration, and I want you to remember three things that all students want and need: They want to be known, valued and inspired. I'll say that again: All students want to be known, valued and inspired."
First-year teacher James Maye, 23, is inspired to teach in his hometown district. The Kendrick High and Columbus State graduate will teach third grade at Hannan Elementary Magnet Academy.
"It feels great to be able to make a difference right here where I went to school," Maye said. "I feel a little anxiety, but, overall, I feel excited to do something I'm very passionate about. At the elementary school level, you have the biggest opportunity to really mold the kids and influence them in a positive way while they're so young."
His biggest concern is "just making sure I do a great job, teach the kids what they really need to know."
And the district has a mentoring program to help him and the rest of the new teachers do that. In fact, the state has used Muscogee's program as a model for other districts, said Christy Nolan, MCSD's professional learning director.
"Our teacher retention rate is 91-93 percent each year, which for a transient town like Columbus, with Fort Benning, is wonderful," Nolan said. "The state average is 86 percent."
The district assigns new teachers two mentors for three years: One is a fellow teacher in their school; the other is a central office specialist.
"Sometimes you don't feel comfortable talking to somebody in your school," Nolan said, "so they have another outlet."
Maye expects to make good use of his mentors.
"I want to learn tips about starting off the year and things I can use throughout the year to make this transition into teaching a little bit easier and make sure I'm as helpful as I can be for the students," he said. " With all the responsibility I'll have, I want to know what's the best way to take it on and be able to work efficiently. How do I handle it all?
Lewis answered that question for all of the new teachers.
"We're going to learn together this first year," the new superintendent said. "I promise you this: I will be there supporting you every step of the way. I can promise you my background is that of servant leadership, and I can tell you from the professionals that I've met, we are here to serve you. Do not feel apprehensive about asking questions. We want to ensure your success, because your success also will be our success."