Russell Harris keeps choosing Monroe County.
“A couple time I’ve had offers to go other places,” he told the Monroe County Board of Education while interviewing for the director of schools job last week. “Once I was offered quite a bit of extra money and I said, ‘That’s not enough for me.’ I’m not looking to go anywhere else.”
Harris, 49, is currently serving as Tellico Plains High School’s principal, a role he has held since 2006.
He obtained his Bachelor of Science degree in secondary mathematics from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 1993. He continued his education at UTC, completing his Master of Education in administration and supervision in 2001. In 2003, he also obtained his Educational Specialist degree in education instructional leadership from Tennessee Technological University.
Harris began his career in education in 1993 at Meigs County High School, where he taught mathematics and physics for a year. In 1994, he began teaching at Tellico Plains High School and has remained there since, serving 12 years as an educator and 13 as the principal.
Harris and his wife, Kim, have been married 27 years. They have two sons, ages 24 and 19.
“I’ve lived in Monroe County all my life, except for the brief time we lived in McMinn after we got married,” said Harris. “I live on my great-grandparents’ property. I’m proud of who I am and where I’m from.”
1. What is your vision for Monroe County Schools and how do you plan on achieving that vision?
Harris said his vision starts with “academic excellence.”
“I don’t want to be negative at all,” he said. “We have excellence in many areas in many part of the county. But I think our achievement scores are mediocre.”
Currently, Monroe County has an achievement success score of 33.4, Harris said, while the state average is 39.1.
“I’m a math teacher (at heart),” he said. “I look at numbers. I like to look at numbers.”
Harris said when he sees the county’s current average scores, he reflects back to Tellico Plains High School’s scores 15 years ago. He added that statistics show that administration is 25 percent of test scores.
“That was the normal thing we had,” he said. “We had test scores that were at this level and the state average was higher above that. We are underachieving, for the most part, as a district. I think with the teachers, principals and staff that we have in place, we can do a lot better.”
Since Harris has been principal at TPHS, the school’s scores have climbed. Three out of the last four years, TPHS was among the highest academic achieving schools in East Tennessee. In 2016-17, it was a Tennessee Reward School. The school made the U.S. News and World Report’s list for best high schools for six consecutive years.
In addition, Harris said another focus of his will be school safety.
“The number one goal I’ve always had as principal — I’ve been principal for 13 years — is safety. School safety is very important. It’s the only important thing when it really comes down to it,” he said. “You can do a lot of things, you can educate, you can teach, but if a student doesn’t come to school and go back home healthy and happy in good shape then you failed that day, you failed that students.”
2. This year has been somewhat stressful for some employees as we have worked through the transition to a new director. How would you promote positive morale and help employees feel secure and confident moving forward into the new school year?
Harris said positive morale takes time and trust.
“I’m a good judge of character, good judge of what upsets people, what doesn’t, what makes people happy,” he said. “Teachers need to be happy. My experience is that happy teachers make happy students. Happy students do well in school.”
Noting that he was not there to criticize outgoing Director of Schools Tim Blankenship, Harris said one mistake he felt like Blankenship made was moving so many teachers around five years ago.
“I did not approve of that,” said Harris. “I did not even know about most of the ones at my school. It’s just something that I don’t believe in. I don’t think that’s how you do business. I don’t think that’s how you treat people. I think you treat people the way you’d like to be treated yourself. Over time, you can built that (morale). It comes from trust, how you treat people, from motivation and confidence.”
Harris noted that when he took over as principal at TPHS in 2006, the school had a morale issue.
“We had an issue where teachers didn’t always get along,” he said. “When I became principal, some of them were in fear — I’m talking people that I had worked with for 10 years — because they thought I would retaliate. Because they thought I was on the side of the ones being put down. I made it clear from the get-go, from the first faculty meeting, I stood up and made it clear that I was not there to retaliate against anybody. I just don’t operate that way.”
“I’ve had people that have done me wrong in my life, but there’s a book I’ve read and was taught from the time that I was young that teaches you how to respond to that,” Harris continued. “I believe that. That’s what I go by in my life.”
Harris said he worked hard to build back trust and increase morale among his faculty and staff.
“In 2007, proficiency levels on test scores went up,” he said. “What did I do? I built confidence, trust and morale. In 2008, it went up again. That’s what I think you do for Monroe County. You start building trust and morale.”
Harris said this starts at the first county-wide in-service day.
“The first thing I’ve got to do is give a really good speech there,” he said. “My youngest son calls it my ‘bull speech.’ Every year at the beginning of school, I’ve always given a speech to the students. My oldest son told me I say the same thing every year. ‘You just fill them full of bull.’ So they named it my bull speech. A speech is not good enough by itself. But it is the beginning. That’s where you start building trust.”
For Harris, teachers are the “backbone of schools.”
“I believe in supporting them in every way that I can,” he said.
“If you are wanting someone to be the director who will punish teachers every time they make a mistake, I’m not your man,” Harris added. “Don’t vote for me if (that’s what you want)… I’m not talking about major things. But, I’m not going to jump on them every time they do something little wrong.”
3. If one of our schools has a significantly low achievement score across the board, what sort of strategy would you implement to improve achievement among the students?
No teacher at Tellico Plains High School has ever been a Level 1 teacher twice. As a matter of fact, only four teachers have ever been a Level 1 under Harris’ reign as principal.
“Not just bragging, but that’s pretty remarkable,” he said. “Across the state, there are a lot of teachers at a Level 1. And that’s been over the course of 13 years. With all, I did the same thing. Sat down with them and talked to them one-on-one. I asked them why they thought they were a Level 1. Some of them had reasons. One had some medical issues and had missed some work. Sometimes there are reasons.”
Harris said when teachers say it is because they have the “low children,” that is where he comes back and notes that the lowest scoring children have the most potential for growth.
“If you’re already really high, there’s not as much room to grow,” he said.
But as a director of schools, Harris said it might be harder to have one-on-one conversations with each Level 1 teacher.
“Over time, I could,” he said. “I don’t believe in sitting in the office up here. I like to get out. I think it’s important to be visible in schools. I think it’s important for 5,000-something students to recognize who I am. I may not know every one of them by name like I can at a smaller school, but I definitely can know a lot of the students and they can know who I am. And, I can walk into a teacher’s classroom and say something good about the teacher in front of the students, and do that regularly.”
One thing Harris will do for sure is look at the numbers.
He recalled one of his Level 1 teachers and how he sat down with her to go over her scores.
“She only had 11 students that she had scores on,” he said. “When we looked at the numbers, nine of the 11 were almost where they were supposed to be or above where they needed to be. Two of the 11 were really low. Now if you knew the two students, it wouldn’t be unusual for them to be low in any class. They could have just came in and said they weren’t going to try or do anything. And, that’s probably what they did.”
Harris said he looked at that teacher and said, “You’re not a bad teacher. For these two students, you couldn’t get them to perform this day, on this test. For the rest of them, you did a good job.”
“You’ve got to be careful when you judge teachers on saying you’re a Level 1,” Harris told the board. “I don’t like the blanket policy that if you’re a Level 1, you’re a bad teacher. And that’s been the perception in our county. Quite frankly with some Central Office personnel, I’ve flat out told them to let me take care of my teachers. That’s one thing I appreciate the most out of Mr. Blankenship. I told him I would get him good test scores if he let me do it my way. And for the most part, he has.”
Harris said the numbers tell a story when they are analyzed. He told another story about how one teacher came to him complaining about a certain student’s low scores and how “bad” they were.
“This boy, I knew him well,” said Harris. “He was special education, had never scored well on a statewide test. He had scored anywhere from 2% to 7% going back to third grade.”
In this teacher’s class, however, the child tested at the 9 percentile.
“I said, ‘Look at that! You thought he was bad and that’s the best he’s ever done. That’s the highest he’s ever achieved academically.’ When it comes out on a Report Card or what is presented in front of the School Board, he’s a failure. But he’s not a failure because he did better than he’s ever done. That made her feel better. That’s the things I believe in.”
4. What plan or plans would you develop to keep students who have attendance problems from going to homeschooling?
Harris said homeschooling seems to be a new trend, and it is something that will need to be explored.
“As a school system, we need someone to look into the options of alternative ways to educate children,” he said. “I’m not saying we have to do it or that I’m pushing it, but it is a new trend.”
“With that said, I believe that the best way to keep students from homeschooling is to give them a quality education in the schools where they are at,” added Harris.
Because of this, Harris said he started promoting TPHS’s test scores more frequently.
“We’re starting to get families from other areas wanting to bring their children to our school because they believe they’re going to get a quality education,” he said. “I think that’s important.”
However, the principal admitted that sometimes at the high school level, there are students who are better off not being at the school.
“Sometimes you get a student who is dangerous to the other students and faculty and staff,” he said. “Sometimes public education isn’t for every single person. But at the same time, we have to be aware of the money aspect.”
When 3rd District’s Jo Cagle asked if Harris thought younger students were more likely to be homeschooled that high school students, Harris said truancy is the biggest reason for homeschooling.
“Instead of being punished, they pull them out and go to homeschool,” he said. “I don’t know if you’ll ever totally stop that.”
5. Do you understand the BEP formula and how it works? Our fund balance is at a minimum required amount and the next two years may make balancing our budget extremely challenging. How will you approach this process for developing a workable budget?
“I understand the BEP formula—a formula the state has created as a way to at least attempt to fairly fund,” said Harris. “It’s very debatable whether or not it’s fair, based on large and small school districts. I could debate that for a while. But I taught math and physics. Formulas is what we do.”
Harris said the most important question in the budget process is “Why?”
“If you make me director of schools, I’m going to say, “Why do you need $100,000 this year when you got $100,000 last year?” Everything that isn’t tied to the classroom, I will ask questions.”
Harris warned that if the school system was not careful, the County Commission may cut funding.
“Unless we do our due diligence,” he said. “I don’t think we need to go over there and ask them for too much or things that we may not need. Like the roofs, we needed that. You’ve got to ask for things like that. But if we’ve got to go ask for raises for certain positions, or creating new positions that didn’t exist before, we need to talk more about that.”
More importantly, Harris said everyone needs to work together.
“Maybe we can make some cuts. Maybe we can’t. Maybe we can start putting some money aside for school projects. Maybe the County Commission will come back and say that since we’re working hard to fund our budget, they will be more willing to help. I believe in working together. We’ve got to work together.”
Harris also took his interview time to not that he believes teacher salaries are too low.
“We need to address this,” he said. “We don’t need to be behind in teacher pay. Not everyone is loyal like I am. We had a young man who did his student teaching at TPHS last year. He had an offer from Monroe and an offer from a neighboring county. He took the offer from the neighboring county because they paid more. That’s just the bottom line of it. We lost a teacher and a coach in a hard subject to get teachers for because of pay. It’s going to happen again and again.”
By comparison, Harris said teachers in Monroe can cross county lines for around $8,000 more annually.
“We’ve got to be competitive,” he said.