These remarks were shared with the Roanoke County School Board by email on August 17, 2023.
I share these thoughts with the Roanoke County School board as someone who grew up in the County from ages 1 to 18 and attended County Public Schools from grades 1-12 until graduating from Northside.
I am profoundly thankful for the education I received over those twelve years. The content shared here is not meant to sound boastful; it’s not about me. The intention is to give honor and gratitude for the fine educational foundation the Roanoke County Schools gave me, and to share this with the community so we can appreciate what we have and build on it, and not let it be neglected or destroyed.
The education and leadership opportunities I received in County Schools, (in tandem with lessons learned at home, in Scouts, at church, in the community, etc.) gave me the tools to enjoy a rewarding and successful life and career.
And my experience is not unique. I am the youngest of four; all of us graduated from County schools and then attended and graduated from William and Mary. Clearly, Roanoke County gave us tools in our toolkit to take our studies and lives to the next level.
Here are a few key skill areas that stand out that I gained in school.
There is no perfect educational system, but as I think back on my twelve years in school, I was blessed with some particularly gifted English teachers. A strong command of one’s mother tongue is foundational to all other success, and one’s skills in a second or third language will never be stronger than one’s ability in one’s mother tongue.
As a history major and education minor at W&M, I had to do lots of reading and writing. Many of my friends dreaded tackling papers, but it usually came easy to me; I remember getting A’s on most of my papers, which of course helped the GPA greatly.
In 2007, I co-authored Write like a Champion that won the “Foreign Language Book of the Year” in Taiwan. That would have been impossible without the writing, vocabulary, and grammar background I got in school. Frankly, I couldn’t have successfully taught English in Taiwan for ten years had it not been for skills I learned earlier in life.
Beginning in May 2020 as a Covid quarantine project, I am now a writer with the online newspaper The Roanoke Star. Clearly, such would be impossible without skill and comfort as a writer.
Public speaking skills
At Northside, I was trained in public speaking and won second place in the state in extemporaneous speaking.
In 1987 I earned a Virginia teacher license for history and German, a license I have kept valid and it’s still good until 2030.
The experience and confidence gained from organizing and delivering speeches have given me the skills I use daily as a teacher, and that I have used since beginning that career in 1987. Plus, it helped equip me with the speaking skills to help pastor an English-speaking church in Taiwan and a Chinese-speaking church here in Roanoke. In short, there is no way I could have done what I have been able to do in life, without public speaking skills.
Foreign language skills
I began learning German in ninth grade at Northside with a dynamic teacher and continued through all four years there and at W&M and that gave me a love and skill with foreign languages so that I now speak both German and Mandarin Chinese. In fact, I began my paid teaching career in 1986 as an intensive German 101X drill instructor where as a W&M senior I helped first-year German students master basic patterns. Building on a love of languages, I have visited thirty-plus countries including W&M Junior Year abroad in Germany and ten years in Taiwan.
On a personal level, I would never have married my wife and started a family if not for knowing the official language of Taiwan, Mandarin Chinese.
Foreign languages have opened new worlds and new relationships I never could have explored or enjoyed had my life been limited to one language. And that door first opened to me as a ninth grader at Northside.
Education vs. distraction
Beginning with education classes at W&M and all through teacher training at public and private schools in both Virginia and Taiwan, it’s been drilled into my brain: good teachers maximize classroom instructional time and minimize distractions.
Teachers and students have only so much time, focus, and energy. As author and business guru Donald Miller puts it, “The human mind loves three goals, likes four goals, and ignores five goals.” We only have so much bandwidth, and distractions keep students from learning. Now, after all tragic learning losses from the Covid years, helping students catch up is more important than ever.
In 2008, here in Roanoke I began a platform teaching English over the internet to students who are mostly in Taiwan or China. In starting and growing this Roanoke County-based business, I daily use skills I learned in Roanoke County schools decades ago.
Meeting with students online regularly, I hear about their daily lives. One rising eighth grader in Taiwan told me last July he had to attend three weeks of classes at school, over eight hours a day, Monday through Friday. His entire middle school must do that. This past Wednesday, he was happy to tell me the three weeks of school were over for now so he can enjoy about three weeks of summer break until the school year starts on September 1. However, for homework due then, he told me in English, “I have to memorize the periodic table of elements.”
An eighth grader!
It’s normal for these students in Asia to attend summer classes, night and weekend classes, and then attend classes on our platform at 8:00 or 9:00 pm, after a long day of studies elsewhere.
In many cases, these students have English skills better than those of us who are native speakers, even though their native tongue is Chinese and English is their second language. For example, we have one student in China who, as a fifth grader, is reading in a US textbook written in English for American sixth graders!
Let that sink in.
While countless American children are not reading on grade level, (and it got a lot worse during the Covid lockdowns), this Chinese girl is reading above grade level, in what for her is a foreign language! And in Asia, there are millions more like her.
While some Americans are torqued up over he and she, some Asian students of ours are learning vocabulary like garland, sham, blithe, impetuous, intrepid. Do you think all the English native speakers in Virginia high schools know these words?
In sum, since much of the rest of the world is moving onward and upward, we need to be competitive on the global scale. One key way? Focus on academics and cut distractions to instruction.