Occupation: Associate Professor of Education, Lenoir-Rhyne University
Update from Summer: October 2021
Featured Catawban Summer Carrol was moved to share this heartwarming story about her son Isaiah’s experience with some community heroes from the Conover Fire Department. It is an endearing account of what makes Catawba County so special through the eyes of a young boy and his mom.
It was an ordinary day until it became extraordinary. My five-year-old son, Isaiah, got to witness firefighters in action at his own home! Seeing his eyes dance as he looked through the window and saw Conover’s Engine # 2 parked in front of our house is a moment I have captured in my heart, serving as a sweet reminder of why I’m happy living here in Conover, North Carolina. Where else do firefighters make house calls? And not to extinguish a fire but to ignite one - in the heart and imagination of a child.
While visiting the downtown Conover park, in the words of my five-year-old son, “the fire trucks were having a meeting.” About three or four of them were lined up outside of the police station. Isaiah squatted down on the grass near the curb and observed the firefighters’ comings and goings. He waved, and a few waved back. Eventually, two firemen must have felt drawn by my son’s fixation on their every move. According to Isaiah, they approached him and apologized for not having any firefighter hats on their trucks and promised to bring one to our home. I smiled and said, “Maybe you misunderstood them. I doubt they are coming to our house. They don’t even know where we live.” Isaiah replied, “Yes they do. Daddy gave them our address!” Hmm, I thought. Maybe they will come, but certainly not today. They probably meant they’d give him a hat next time - whenever that might be.
When we got home, Isaiah insisted that they would be coming, and he stayed perched by the window, peeking out ever-so-often to check. I simply did not believe they were coming. Then, there was a pound on the front door. And I do mean a pound. It was not a knock. It was the sound of someone who had serious business to see about. It was firefighters Darren Chewning and Tyler Hamby from Conover Fire Station # 2. They had indeed gone back to the fire station, grabbed some hats and stickers, and brought them to my boy! When we opened the door and saw Darren and Tyler and the fire truck, Isaiah’s eyes looked as if they had just seen Santa Claus. There before him were real, live firemen and a huge glossy red fire truck - right outside his home!
Not only did Isaiah get one-on-one time with some of our community’s finest that day, but he also got to explore the truck, ring the bell, and learn about how some of the tools on the truck are used. (He could not go inside of the truck, of course, because of Covid). I could not stop thanking the firemen for taking the time to make this stop. They not only made Isaiah’s day (and the day of a few other kids in our neighborhood who also got to witness this momentous occasion), but they also made me a little more sure about why I like living here in the Hickory/Conover area. Kindness matters here. People matter here. And, what I love most - children matter here. Their smiles matter. Their fun matters. Their questions matter. Their desires matter. Their learning matters. From the police officers and firefighters to countless churches and recreation organizations in the community, to schools, to business owners and leaders, to the lady at the store or the family in park, people in this community take time to nurture, inspire, care for, and simply love the boys and girls who call this community home. Truly, in Catawba County, children can experience childhood at its finest.
Thank you, Darren and Tyler, and the entire Conover Fire Department. Your first-class kindness not only makes a difference for kids like Isaiah, but it also makes living here in Catawba County the best. #MakingLivingBetter
Are you originally from Catawba County?
I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, but called Maryland home for about 15 years before moving to the Hickory area.
What prompted you to move here?
It was the job, but I was also drawn to the change in pace from the big, bustling city area to the smaller towns. It has a lot to offer.
What inspired you to get into education to begin with?
Well, I was an English major. I graduated from a small university very similar to LR [Lenoir-Rhyne University] in Springfield, Ohio, Wittenberg. I remember being asked, "What are you going to do with your English degree? Teach?" And I’d think, no way. No way am I going to teach those kids. I'm just not going to do it. And I didn't at first.
I was a technical writer for a technology company during the dot com boom, when tech was the cool thing to do. I had interned with that company as a college student, and then came on after I finished. They hired me on and I moved to Manassas, Virginia. It's funny, because I thought I was moving to the DC area when I moved to Manassas. It’s at least a fifty-minute drive. It was a long distance phone call to DC, and nobody wanted to come visit.
I got kind of bored with the work. I was always volunteering to do more creative writing as opposed to technical writing, like asking them to let me do the company newsletter. I always was more of the creative, engaging type. I got a job as a copywriter in Maryland, and that's how I ended up moving to Maryland. It was at an ad agency, which was a great learning experience for me.
When I worked at the ad agency, the senior copywriter was brilliant and really helped me. I already had a voice in my writing, and she helped me clean it up a little bit. I worked with many companies. . I spent most of my time working with a Jewish cemetery. It was great experience, because I didn't know much about the Jewish faith at that time. I also didn't know you could purchase your burial space pre-need, so that was a whole education. So I’m writing these ads to get people to purchase their burial space pre-need, and that just seemed kind of weird.
I started to get that itch that this wasn't it. You're in your twenties, you're trying to figure out what you're supposed to do and where you're supposed to go. Everything's an adventure at that point. You know, “I don't have children, I'm not married, so it’s all about me. What am I going to do?”
I was inspired by my sister, who was a marketing communications major. Her first job was selling cigarettes. She was working for Phillip Morris. She had a company car, a nice little place in Columbus. But she was like, “I'm not selling cigarettes forever.” She ended up getting her master’s in education. I thought, maybe I'll try education. I know I said I'd never teach, but I felt like I could be more creative with my writing – it would give me a stage almost and I’d be impacting more than a company’s bottom line, which I found inspiring – so I started looking into it.
I ended up in a program called the New Teacher Project. I was actually a part of the first cohort in Prince George's County, and I fell in love with it. I took a pay cut for the summer, because I pretty much went without work while I was in this intensive program. I was placed in the classroom while I finished my course work during the fall and spring, and the rest is kind of history.
I started out teaching seventh grade language arts. They were crazy, but they were cool. I then went on to teach ninth grade and tenth grade English. I thought I was better with the high school students, especially the ninth graders. They were still young enough that they would do what you said, at least at the beginning of the year. They weren't jaded yet, and they weren't as immature as the middle schoolers.
But even there, they would struggle with some of the same things I struggled with as a student writer. I would seek out veteran teachers and ask, "How do you help these kids?" I was pretty much told, "Oh you don't have to worry about them. They're not going to college. They don't need to write an essay." Huh? That kind of put some fire under me. We don't decide who goes to college or who's in that pipeline. All students need to learn how to write.
Even before that I had already started a Master of Arts in Writing. I chose the Master of Arts in Writing because it was geared toward people who were teaching writing and reading. It wasn't an MFA. I didn't necessarily want an MFA; I liked the teaching aspect of it, but I wanted to focus on teaching writing.
I went to this really fabulous master’s program through Northeastern University. Our classes were held on Martha's Vineyard every summer. Those are some of the most memorable years of my life, going to the Vineyard every summer with other teachers, other educators and writing and thinking, talking about teaching, and talking about our own writing.
I remember one of my professors saying, "You should consider becoming a professor." Honestly, at that point in my life I didn't even know how you became a professor, what a PhD was, or any of that. I just knew that I liked writing. I liked the idea of contributing to the body of knowledge that would help teachers better teach writing, so I decided to go on for my doctorate.
I initially went to become a better writing teacher. Then somehow you get into this PhD program. If you think the master’s program gets you talking a different language, the PhD program changes your thinking. I got more into the research aspect and teacher preparation in general. I think my aim was to contribute to the body of knowledge that would help teach teachers. I don't know that I was aiming to be a teacher educator, but that's what I became.
That's what brought me to this job. I started the Master of Arts in Teaching program for LR University, which is similar to the program I took. It's an alternative, accelerated route into education. You get it done in a year. The model was that you couldn't work, because you were in an intensive summer program and then you'd be placed in a school during the year. You wouldn't be paid for that, but you would have an extended practicum internship experience. I spent my first four or five years doing that.
I really enjoyed that, because I was a newcomer to this area. I had to get out there and create community partnerships with the local school district and other community partners in general. I had to market it. I had to get students. I needed to get cooperating teachers. I needed them to buy into our model of how we were trying to train these teachers.
It was really a collaborative effort, and it allowed me to meet a lot of educators in the community. In fact, my first year here I did a meet and greet for LR and education folks to help them find out about our programs and to make connections. It was held at the art museum, so it was a collaborative program with them. It was also meant to get people into the art museum and see the connections between literacy and art.
While we were doing that, LR was also simultaneously launching an online part-time program in Asheville. We found that there was more interest in the online part-time program from practicing teachers. Now my marketing targeted people like me, people who majored in English or science but didn't want to teach.
Now we have a 4+1 program where students major in a content area and then do our Masters in Teaching program. We’re starting to see more of the students funneling up, doing their four years at the undergraduate level in a concentrated area, and entering the teaching program after that.
So the rationale is to provide a really solid foundation in the subject they'll be teaching, then funnel them up to provide the skills they need to translate that knowledge into a classroom?
We were finding it was just too hard to complete all of that in a four-year program.
In the last few years, we created a program called Instructional Studies for people who are interested in education but may not necessarily teach in a public school. They may teach in a private setting, a charter school setting, even a corporate setting or a museum setting. It addresses education very broadly; we give fundamentals and then you concentrate in your area of interest. It’s for people who want to do museum studies, or business, and maybe work in a corporate environment where you may do education training. Its interdisciplinary focus is appealing to students with uncertain or diverse interests. I enjoy mentoring and advising students in this program.
You’ve lived in a lot of different places. How have the last six years been for you living here? Have you found a community here?
Oh, I love it. You know, coming from a big city, it's very different. Here, you can't go anywhere without seeing someone you know. And I like that. I think when you live in a big city you're hoping you don't see someone you know, but I've become accustomed to it. I come here [Tasteful Beans, a local coffeehouse] a lot and I work. Often times, I can't sit there and work uninterrupted. When I come here I know there may be an interruption, and I'm okay with that, because you just never know what type of conversation you're going to have, who might brighten your day, who's day you might brighten, just from the human connection. Being engrossed in work, especially in a field like mine where you're an academic, can sometimes be isolating. When I have opportunities to interact, I embrace them. That’s why I like that my position here requires me to interact with the community.
Are you engaged in the community in other ways too?
I am a member of the Department of Social Services board and I am also a volunteer facilitator for the Darkness to Light Child Abuse Prevention training that is offered through the Children’s Advocacy and Protection Center. I am a former member of the CAPC Board of Directors, as well as a former member of the Hickory Museum of Art’s Board of Directors. Recently, I have gotten involved with a Parent and Family Engagement committee organized by the Catawba County Partnership for Children. I also support the work of Safe Harbor and Young People of Integrity. I spend most of the little free time I have attending events and serving at my church, Discovery. I help plan fun events that provide opportunities for the women in the church to connect with one another, and I am also involved in the children’s ministry. When my children get a little older, I look forward to getting involved in our international mission work.
Did you find getting involved with different organizations and boards was a great way to meet other people?
Oh yeah. I'm grateful every day for Leadership Catawba. It was my involvement with Leadership Catawba that helped me learn about this community. That and meeting Lisë Swenson, the former executive director of the art museum. When I was in Maryland, I would take my pre-service teachers to the National Portraiture Gallery in DC to do visual literacy, reading paintings, and they seemed to really like it. I felt it really helped them in the classroom. I contacted Lisë and said, "I want to bring some teachers there, what do you all have for teachers?" And she said, "You want to connect teachers with art? Yes!" That's how I got connected with them. I would have my students go and do some exercises reading images and connecting them to whatever content area they were teaching in. That led to more of my involvement at the museum and with other community organizations.
If someone asked you what it's like to live here, what would you tell them?
While it's very different from Maryland and the D.C. area, it's a very good change of pace. It's very community-oriented, meaning that it seems like everyone is about doing something in the community here. Most people are involved in some way. If you see people serving in some capacity here, they're probably serving somewhere else and I think that's great.
I also noticed, and I think this is a Southern thing, everything is connected to a church and it's normal. At different public events we pray before they start, and that's cool to me. I'm a Christian and I like that.
People stop at the grocery store or somewhere and talk to you. My mom will sometimes say that she's confused when people start talking to her at Sam's Club. She’s wondering, "Why are you talking to me? Are you serious?" She comes here with this whole suspicion of people. I found that people just genuinely just want to know how you're doing. There are also lots of things to get your kids involved in.
People might ask me about the issue of diversity. I would tell somebody who is concerned with issues of diversity, which is what many people want for their children, that there are people who want the same thing here for their children. It is going to take people staying in order to create a more diverse community. I know many people here who seem very interested in working together and creating a more diverse and inclusive community.
I would also say that even though it's known to be a small town, compared to other smaller towns, Hickory has a lot to offer. It’s almost like a small big city. There’s a huge arts culture, lots of different churches, lots of different community events, and the nonprofits are very active. I don't think you could come here and say you have nothing to do. I know for some, and it depends if you're looking for a wife or a husband, it may be hard to find a mate here because it's a very family-oriented town and many are already married with children. I tell anyone who's looking for a mate, you never know where you're going to meet your mate. I'm testament to that. I think it’s more important to follow your interests, your passions, and be open.
Interviewed November 27, 2018