TAMPA — Jeff Eakins didn’t have a snowman’s chance of becoming superintendent of a big public school system, he told an audience of new teachers on Monday, showing them a winter photograph from his childhood in Ohio.
People have asked him how he rose to the top of his profession, he said, and he always advises them: “Everything that you do, do it to the very best of your ability. "
With those and other encouraging words, the leader of Hillsborough County’s school system welcomed more than 600 newly hired teachers to a training day at Chamberlain High School.
“Sometimes teaching can seem very complex,” he told them. “But you can break it down to its simplest form. The way we have successful students is we focus on them and we know them.”
His remarks were measured. He did not let on that he recently announced his plans to retire next June, making this his last opportunity to take part in the yearly ritual of welcoming new teachers.
Instead, he advised them to take advantage of resources including the teacher’s union and a staff of instructional mentors. He acknowledged the difficulty many children have in reading and writing, asking the teachers to support those who teach preschool, first and second grade.
Most teachers endeavor to make a difference in the life of at least one student, Eakins said. But “you don’t know who your one student is, ever. You’ll never know. So that’s why you have to focus on every student. Let every student in your classroom be your one."
He urged them to model good behavior, telling them that “the greatest character program in the Hillsborough County Public Schools is you."
Soon after, he yielded the stage to Dakeyan Graham, a King High School music teacher who is Hillsborough’s Teacher of the Year and a finalist for the state award.
Graham, who also started the morning’s program by singing the national anthem, spoke at length about students and teachers who influenced his decision to choose a career in education.
He moved through the audience, asking teachers to gave examples of their own role models. He said that, even though as a band teacher he was told he must be married to his job, he learned that it is also important to have balance in his life.
He advised them to accept criticism, learn from failure and realize, when confronted by a challenging student, that “every student that is in your classroom is their parents’ best.”
Teachers lined up afterwards to greet Graham. And Eakins, when asked if he minded seeing the teacher get so much attention, answered with a smile. “It’s all right,” he said. “I’ll let him have that.”
Classes begin on Aug. 12.