An Interview with Tom Watkins: Let’s Call Them Educators!

Jun 25, 2011 by

Michael Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico


Tom Watkins is a global business and educational consultant, former Michigan state superintendent of schools and a “one man think tank” constantly generating new ways of looking at old problems. Tom is also an’s 2010 Upton Sinclair Award winner. He can be reached at:

In this interview, he discusses


1) You have called teachers the “Diana Ross” and “Marvin Gaye” of our educational system. Please explain?


Teachers matter!


Look, there are many activities that have to take place at the state superintendents or local superintendent’s level to make schools run. However, at the end of the day, all the stuff besides what happens between teachers and students — the magic of learning — is simply background noise or “doo wopp.”


We have to find ways to select, nurture, support and recognize great teachers. Schools that work focus on TLC. No, not tender loving care ( although that is good as well) but on Teaching, Learning and Children!


Schools that do not work for kids are focused on Power, Control, Politics and Adults.


It has been my job to do the “other stuff” to help clear the way for great teachers to work their magic.


Great teachers will be American salvation.


2) You wrote a stimulating essay entitled: “Taking the Charter School to College” for The Center for Michigan ( where you challenges educators to innovate to educate rather than leading the battle to contain the change.” You propose opening up the teacher training process by letting others with a “better mouse trap” to enter the business of preparing educators. Now, that will shake up folks in the status quo. Tell us your thinking on this idea?


Perhaps it was growing up in the 60’s and 70’s that caused me to constantly question the status quo. Today I hear complaints about the quality of teacher preparation programs. These complaints come from teachers themselves as well as principals and superintendents. There has been much discussion of late of modifying tenure in order to rid schools of “ineffective teachers.” Isn’t this like standing downriver and pulling drowning victims out of the river? Would it not be wise to go up stream and see what’s throwing ineffective teachers in the system to begin with?


I ask, ” What if our colleges of education did not have the exclusive franchise on preparing future teachers?” “What if we opened up the teacher preparation business to educational entrepreneurs who could demonstrate through scientific research that their methods actually produced more effective teachers?”


As you can expect, the universities and colleges of educations are not jumping on this idea — some are actually trying to stomp it out!


The goal is to stimulate thinking and discuss ways we can improve.


In some ways the response from the university community has been humorous, predictable and sad. People naturally attempt to protect their turf. Yet our institutions of higher learning are supposed to be the fountains of knowledge and new ideas, not protectionism.


We need to ask what is working and attempt to make it better. Then ask what is not working and create something new. This is what makes America strong and great.


We need to ask: “What if the impossible isn’t?”


3) You are quoted as saying, “Rhetoric from our state or nation’s capitol has never educated a single child. What is behind this statement?


There is often lots of hot air and many press releases that emanate from the political world. Yet, political pronouncements have never educated a single child. Children are educated not by rhetoric, but by teachers who know their subject matter and are passionate about teaching and learning.


It is our jobs as educational leaders to clear out the under-brush of any debris that gets in the way of teaching and learning.


Everything we do should be measured against this statement: “Show me how this helps a teacher teach and a child to learn.


This does not mean that we don’t challenge the status quo. The status quo is the enemy of our kids, schools and country.


4) Detroit Public Schools have been called the worst urban education system in America by Arne Duncan, the US Secretary of Education. Is he wrong?




While clearly there are islands of excellence in the Detroit school system, they are surrounded by a sea of despair. What has happened to the children in Detroit is like watching educational genocide play out before our very eyes. It has been wrong for far too long.


What happens to Detroit kids impacts us all. A child without a solid education today is an adult without a future tomorrow.


While much of the focus in Michigan has been on the “brain drain” — the young people who leave the state after obtaining their college degrees — we ought to be petrified about those without a quality education who are left behind.


We cannot rebuild the City of Detroit, the region or the state on a crumbling educational foundation. Our collective economic futures and the quality of education we deliver to ALL of our children are inextricably linked.


5) It seems that so called “educational reform” agenda is being driven by corporate board rooms and political back rooms. Are we focused on the right issues?


When the focus is again on TLC– teaching, learning and children– then and only then are we focused on the right issues.


I support the engagement of the broad community in helping our public schools carry out our mission. The education of our youth is too critical to be left solely in the hands of educators.


Having said that, we need more teachers and educators to step up, offer reform agendas and lead. The political and corporate figures are filling a huge vacuum left by educators who are too busy protecting what is, rather than asking what could be.


Educators from school boards on down have to ask: “Are we more interested in managing our careers or truly leading change? Do we want to innovate to educate or fight to contain the change?”


Our schools, nay, our students, need more educators at all levels to step up and lead.


6) You wrote a book in celebration of great teachers, “They Help Us Paint Rainbows. Tell us the origins of this book.


I believe great teachers matter. Great teachers touched my life in profound and meaningful ways. I wanted, in a small way to recognize the greatness I saw in teachers.


The book is a series of quotes from kids from the urban core of Detroit to the small rural school districts in Michigan. The quotes are profound and humbling like the title of the book: “They Help Us Paint Rainbows!”


Another one of my favorites is: “A greater teacher treats the class clown as well as the class president.”


I collected the quotes from kids during my tenure as Michigan’s State Superintendent of Schools 2001-05. A wonderful Michigan company, Stratrgic Staffing Solutions printed the book and distributed over 50,000 free of charge to Michigan’s great teacher as a small token of our thanks for what they do.


Great teachers truly do help our children paint rainbows!


7) Michigan’s Governor Snyder recently spelled out plans to help reform Detroit Schools. What are your thoughts?


Hooray! Leadership matters and the governor is stepping up and leading on behalf of the children of the City of Detroit.


Governor Snyder took drastic and necessary action, as if his own child was trapped in a failing school. If a school is not good enough for our children, it is not good enough any child.


The failure of the Detroit Public School system is the poster child for change — begging a leader to step up and attempt to change a system that systematically fails children.


It seems the Governor adopted the thoughts of President FDR when he said during the Great Depression, “Do something — and if that does not work — do something else. But for God’s sake — do something!”


Those who oppose the necessary changes to our educational system will be remembered as standing with bats and shotguns at the 21st century schoolhouse door.


Governor Snyder’s plans are visionary and bold. Doing nothing was not an option.


The plans are still being rolled out and there is much work to be done in rescuing the children of Detroit. What Governor Synder did and did in a big way, was to step up and say “failing our children is unacceptable.”


Hopefully, future generations will thank the Governor for starting the process to help save both our children and our collective futures.



8) You have been an outspoken reformer for more than two decades. You helped create the first charter school in two states, and earlier adopters of e-learning, blended/personal/ digital cyber schools etc. You have been a change agent while being consistent in supporting public education and the teachers that work in our schools. Some automatically equate “reform” with anti public education. Obviously, you disagree?


There is nothing so wrong with public education that cannot be fixed by what is so very right about public education. There are many bright, capable dedicated people throughout the system. We have to find ways to harness that creativity and energy and uses it to lead change.


Change is a constant. Great educators are constantly thinking and thinking of new ways to educate children.


Two educators that are leading change — Beth Baker and Glen Taylor the founders and co-directors of the WAY Program ( Widening Advancement For Youth.


WAY Program is a personalized learning experience for students who struggle with traditional high school. WAY offers an alternative approach to education, one that encourages self-esteem, independence, and the development of 21st century skills that will facilitate a college education and subsequent career paths.


Each student is equipped with an iMac workstation and Internet connectivity within his or her home. Highly-qualified WAY teachers then assess and align all projects according to state content standards, ensuring that each student completes the program with a high school diploma. WAY combines personalized, project-based, online learning experiences with face-to-face interaction. The staff is invested in the success of each student, providing support 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, all year round. This dedication allows students to excel at their own pace, developing customized learning plans on topics that truly appeal to them.


Beth and Glen are examples off educators willing to take risk, build a better mouse trap that elevates teaching and learning.


We can lead both change and make progress.


9) Think local- Act Global– was a bumper sticker slogan for a while. You seem to have taken this slogan to heart in your efforts to “globally” education especially around China. Why?


America is not an island. The world is changing in dramatic ways. Today, ideas and jobs move around the world effortlessly. We are living in a hyper-competitive, disruptive, transformational, technologically driven knowledge economy. It is our responsibility to prepare ourselves for this future.


Brazil, Turkey, India, Russia, China and other countries are rushing to catch up and overtake the US. Knowledge, creativity, innovation, globalization and an entrepreneurial spirit is driving everything in the 21st century. We need to throw off our blinders and understand there is no guarantee for American to remain on top.


We need to work locally to enhance educational opportunities from the cradle to the grave and expand our horizons beyond our boarders.


I want to see more and more of our schools adjust their curriculums and open the world to their students.


10 ) You have an interesting blend of experience in business, politics, state and local government, media, pre-K-12/Higher education, social/juvenile service and mental health. Some have called you the first “Hybrid” educator. You are not the typical “non-traditional” with leadership experience out-side of education. You have worked both within the walls of education and without. Has this broad range of experience enhanced your success and maketablity?


Yes. That and having 4 sisters and 2 brothers always there to remind me that I was not the smartest sibling, kept me humble. I believe my rich and diverse background does provide me with a unique perspective. I have many past experiences in my toolbox to help as we navigate our changing world.


I am attempting to create an atmosphere among my team so we can share ideas and challenge each other in respectful and dignified ways. As my first boss always reminded me: “If we both agreed on everything, one of us is not necessary.”



11) Is there anything else you would like to add?


No, as usually, Michael you ask great questions. Thank you for the opportunity to share my ideas with the readers. I always enjoy hearing from your readers and they can reach me at:

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