Passing the Mic: Trousdale County Superintendent Clint Satterfield

Our video series, Passing the Mic, features candid conversations with education leaders from across the country about what’s working, what’s not, and what we still don’t know about ensuring students get the educational opportunities they deserve during this uniquely challenging moment.

In Episode 5, TNTP’s Dan Weisberg speaks with Dr. Clint Satterfield, Director of Schools at Trousdale County Schools in Tennessee, about his experience leading a rural school system through the COVID-19 pandemic; how and why the district has maintained its commitment to a high-quality literacy curriculum even while schools have been disrupted; and what his experience as a football coach taught him about leadership. You can watch the entire conversation above or here, and read excerpts below.

You can find previous episodes of Passing the Mic here.

When did the realization hit you that COVID-19 was going to be more than a temporary issue that we’re all going to have to deal with? What was that like as an experienced leader to deal with that magnitude of crisis?

I don’t really know if I ever knew exactly what we were up against until the governor came out and closed schools for the remainder of the year. We were always maybe naïve but hopeful that the school closure would be temporary and that we would have students back in school at some point in time.

Of course, we’re a small rural district, and don’t have a lot of resources. So we developed an analog system, basically paper-packet, continuity-of-learning plans that we had for a couple of weeks. So we had a plan for two to three weeks hoping that we would return. During that spring break time or right prior to it, the governor closed schools, and then that found us scratching or digging for what to do next. And we spent a lot of our spring break with our principals and administrators planning about next steps, and I thought we did a really good job just focusing on the core subjects of ELA and math. We were really big, and we still are, about student work products and analyzing student work products, and we were trying to always do an assignment where the family could submit a piece of student work, and they were taking pictures with their cell phones and sending that to teachers. I started doing a weekly YouTube message. I don’t really like doing those types of things, but the communications really got broken. So we tried to do a weekly superintendent’s YouTube message to let families know what we were doing.

We were closed for seven weeks until the end of school, and we ran some surveys, and we felt like we had at least probably a little bit more than 50 percent of our students stay engaged with us throughout those entire seven weeks.

You said engagement was about 50 percent in the spring. Where do you think you are now as at the start of the school year?

I think we’re probably at 75 or 80 percent. I do think that we have started some conversations around grading and motivation. A lot of us are still stuck in the past and that we think that grades motivate students, and I’ve seen a lot of research, as you have as well, that only about 50 percent of students care about their grades And so what we’re trying to look at is about the quality of the task or the assignments that students are asked to do, that teachers don’t bog students down with a lot of what we call busywork or work that doesn’t seem relevant or important to them.

So we’re trying to have fewer assignments with higher quality, and being sure that we can provide students with timely and high-quality feedback.  But I think the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly opened up that door about how we use technology and how we grade student work and how it affects student engagement and motivation as well.

You’ve talked before about the temptation in a crisis to kind of take your foot off the gas—for example, on curriculum, to trash the curriculum, kind of go back to something that was easier. What were the conversations that happened with educators and with families, and how did you come to say “You know what? We’re going to keep our goals in place”?

Well, a lot of times around here we talk about negotiables and non-negotiables, and we have really put our flag on the hill of high-quality curriculum and materials and coupling that with high-quality instruction. And we’ve come too far to go backwards in the midst of COVID knowing that eventually we’re going to get out of this pandemic, and then students who were once in kindergarten are going to appear in the second grade, and then all of a sudden if they’ve haven’t been exposed to high-quality materials and high-quality instruction, then they’re going to be behind for a lifetime.

We wanted to resist the temptation to scratch and ditch what we’ve worked so hard for to go into gimmicks—and there’s a lot of gimmicks out there that teachers could find on a web search and could quickly take them out of our adopted curriculum and materials. So what we’ve said is we’re going to stay within our curriculum and materials at all cost, and I think we’ve done that so far, but we’ve really resisted the temptation to do something that might be a little easier, and even when other people like the State Department are trying to get you to do other things, and that’s hard with teachers. They say, “Well, the State Department had this out.” Yeah, but we don’t do that. We stay. I’m an old football coach, and I’m really big in staying with the game plan, and we’ve got a game plan. We want to stay with that game plan, and we still feel like that’s working for us. We’ve just got to learn how to deliver those curriculum and materials in a digital learning space.

How are your teachers and principals reacting to that commitment to stick with the game plan?

Surprisingly, we have not had any push back whatsoever. And I think one of the things that has helped us is, for the past three to four years, that’s been our initiative: high-quality instruction and materials. Our teachers have learned their curriculum, and they know the nuances, and they’re accustomed to it, and they really didn’t want to get out of it themselves, because they had become accustomed and familiar and had a lot of trust with the results that they have gotten with students.

You’re a small, rural county. You have three schools. I know that you talk to your peers in more urban settings. What’s different about the challenge you have to deal with as superintendent in a rural district?

You know, basically I think we’re all faced with the same challenges. I think they can be on a larger scale in a larger district. We’re small, but we also don’t have a lot of resources as well. So we have to manage very limited resources. I just think you’ve got to have the spine and the courage to do the right thing. There’s a hundred different opinions out there. Some think we should be in school every day, five days a week. Some don’t think we should be in school at all. But we always have to keep students’ interest at the forefront of what we do. So we just had to have the courage to say “We’re going to do a hybrid model” when everybody around us was not even mentioning the word hybrid. In June we were talking hybrid, and everybody else was talking about going back traditional, full speed with a hundred percent of students in classrooms.

One of the things we’re proud of is we started studying early. We networked with anybody that we could network with. We even talked to Miami-Dade County, which already had experience with intermittent closures due to hurricanes, and they shared a lot of insights that a small, rural district could use about how they use technology and that type of thing. So we read and we networked with everybody we could, and we built a plan that was good for us. And we were able to have the spine and the courage to stay with our game plan. Now, I’m not saying there haven’t been some rough spots along the way, but I think the majority of our community today thinks we’re doing the right thing. They would like to get back to a hundred percent in-person learning just like I would, but if we can’t do that right now, I hope that we’re doing the next best thing.

You were a great football coach. I believe you’re in the State Hall of Fame. So you know every season there’s going to be adversity. Is there an incident of adversity that you faced when you were coaching football that is coming to mind a lot now when you’re dealing with the crisis today?

One of my former players a long time ago had a coaching class with the legendary track coach Ed Temple, and he brought me back a quote. I still have it in my wallet, and it’s about worn out, but it says , “The secret to success is how much can you endure and how much criticism can you take.” That’s the secret, and I have said that to people over and over. It’s kind of been my guidepost as well. But the thing is that the difference between the winners and losers, whether it be on an athletic field or whether it be in life, is again about how much can you endure and then how much criticism can you take.

Now, I’ll tell you this. I’ve taken a lot of criticism, but I have tried to be strong and not let that affect my moral compass to provide a high-quality education for kids. So I think, regardless of what field of endeavor that we’re in, it’s important to have a strong faith that tomorrow’s going to be better than today. And if we live by that, I think we have a chance to be successful. Most of the time the difference between winning and losing is a very thin line, and that guy that hangs in there just a little bit longer is the guy that comes out on top. So that’s what we’re trying to do in our school district is we’re trying to find a way to make things work. We don’t have all the answers, but I hope I’m leading in a way where people have the courage to try new things, and if things don’t work, then we just figure out that’s not the way it works and we’ll try something different tomorrow.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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