‘My life is going to be devoted to kids and their betterment’

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Kentucky Department of Education Chief of Staff Tommy Floyd speaks with a small group about district budgets during the Superintendents' Summit in Frankfort, Ky. Photo by Amy Wallot, Sept. 5, 2013
Kentucky Department of Education Chief of Staff Tommy Floyd speaks with a small group about district budgets during the Superintendents’ Summit in Frankfort, Ky.
Photo by Amy Wallot, Sept. 5, 2013

Chief of Staff Thomas G. “Tommy” Floyd started at the Kentucky Department of Education on July 1. Floyd had been superintendent in the Madison County school district since March 2008 after serving as interim superintendent and chief academic officer for two years. Prior to Madison County, Dr. Floyd worked in the Wayne County, Montgomery County and Somerset Independent school districts, and at the Kentucky Department of Education, where he was a Highly Skilled Educator. Over the last 29 years, Floyd has been a teacher, a coach, an assistant principal, a principal, assistant superintendent and superintendent.

What is your role as chief of staff?

My role as chief of staff is to serve the Office of the Commissioner. I like to think of myself as a go-between, internally and externally. I have a large role with the staff here at the department, both associates and their teams; and the Office of the Commissioner; the many initiatives that we have in place; the numbers of ways that we reach out to and support school districts; and the external relationship between school districts – especially superintendents. Having been a superintendent, principal, assistant principal and teacher – I think I’ve been in every role in schools, even driven a bus – I have a unique perspective to bring the lens of what it’s like in the field to the department and then, as I work in conversations with staff here and folks from the field, to get those two together in a more meaningful, productive way to serve kids in Kentucky.

One of my favorite roles in the department as chief of staff is to assist those superintendents that call needing clarification or support on an idea that they have. Since there are 173 of them, no day is ever the same. Today it’s issue A and tomorrow it’s issue B and C. But so many times they’re simply looking for direction. They’re so capable of moving forward for their kids that it’s one of my favorite things to be able to serve them.

Having recently seen KDE from the superintendent’s office and now from within, what is the biggest misperception districts have about the Kentucky Department of Education?

If you give your life to serve kids, whether it’s in the field or in a school district, or whether it’s in a state department of education, it takes a lot of energy. It takes a lot of motivation. It takes a lot of drive, a lot of urgency. But the number one thing I think it really requires, regardless of your role, it takes a commitment to constantly look to improve processes to make lives better for kids in Kentucky.

I think there are some wonderful things happening for kids in Kentucky. I think Kentucky is continuing to be seen as a state leader. And that comes down to people’s efforts behind the scenes to make food service, transportation and maintenance a better, more efficient functioning unit in school districts across Kentucky. It comes down to the teachers, para-educators, principals, superintendents, assistant superintendents, district office staff, working hard to serve kids. I’m really proud that our Kentucky Board of Education has made what kids can do after high school important – proficiency and college/career-readiness far more than just a number on a test, but skills and attributes that can make those children become young adults and then contribute back to their communities.

At the department, I found a group of dedicated people that I had learned to depend on as a superintendent and so everybody should know that when in doubt, make contact. I can’t stress enough the number of conversations that I had as a superintendent then, with people in KDE – in facilities, budget, food service, Office of Next-Generation Professionals, Next-Generation Schools and Districts, and the commissioner, who gave me his cell phone early on. I had no idea it would lead to an opportunity to work here at the department.

There’s a lot going on and it takes all we have. There’s never been a time that we want to support districts more than right now. We realize how difficult things are. We realize that it takes a lot to support Kentucky’s kids with the limited resources that are available. We are suffering from the same reductions that many in the districts are. A lot fewer staff work in this department than used to. Fewer things are happening because we are watching dollars just like people in the district are watching dollars.

But even with that being said, it’s really important that when you have a concern or a question you don’t hesitate in getting the support for your kids – give us a call. Give me a call. Give someone in an office a call. Call the department switchboard. Ask for a topic. You’ll be sent to the right person. But if something should happen and you don’t get help, make sure you contact me about that. I want to make sure that superintendents know that I’m going to help all cross-functional issues that they may encounter.

How do you think you can best benefit teachers in Kentucky in your new role?

I am very proud that I served as a Kentucky teacher. I taught science and biology for a number of years at middle and high school. I do understand that teachers have a lot on their plate. My wife is a primary teacher; she’s an art teacher in the Madison County school district. I know what we both do at home: I’m working on my computer for department stuff and she’s working on stuff for art. I realize that’s going on across our state. I know teachers put in a lot of their own time, a lot of their own money, they work weekends, but they do so because they are devoted to children, period. What they need is support. That’s what we want to give them. They sometimes feel like they don’t get that. I know I felt that way myself as a teacher sometimes, and that’s probably one of the reasons I wanted to become a school administrator. I wanted to support teachers. That’s kind of what happened to me throughout my career.

Other than more money, what do Kentucky schools need most?

Teachers, principals and superintendents aren’t teachers, principals and superintendents by accident. They want to know how to best serve their kids. They don’t want to take shortcuts, they don’t want to shortchange kids; they want to provide rich, meaningful experiences from the preschool door to the senior year. Whatever your definition of school is – those people serving in those roles and all the support roles that work with them – our educators today simply need more resources. There’s lots of people trying to make that happen. Providing as many resources like PGES, and CIITS as we can, helps teachers find the support they need.  We know that funding is an issue. What wonderful things have happened for kids in Kentucky despite the fact that educational funding is not keeping pace with the efforts of the educators.

I think they want to know what best practices look like. I think they want to have time for a meaningful discussion with other practitioners who they can share ideas with and learn from so they can  meet the needs of kids. Whether you’re a school board member, a community member, an educator or someone who doesn’t have kids in school, I think you want to get better at what you do, so why would that be any different for teachers, principals and superintendents? If someone just like them is achieving great things, they want to know how they’re doing that. Educators are great borrowers of other people’s ideas, so they’ll probably take that idea and, from what I’ve seen, they put a local flavor on it, they tailor it to the needs of their students, and great things happen.

Educators are there for kids. They fully understand they are giving of their life’s energy and time for kids. They’re the greatest Kentuckians, for me, because they made the decision long ago, when they said: “My life is going to be devoted to kids and their betterment.”

Who was your favorite teacher and why?

Probably my first favorite teacher is Ms. Molly Burkett. Molly taught me to read. I remember the day I could read. We had the same birthday and I always got to take off her rubber overshoes when it rained; that was my job because not everybody could touch her feet. I was special because we had the same birthday. I kept up with Ms. Burkett until her death. She lived right behind my church, so we would correspond and I would stop by to see her.

But there have been many, many teachers: English teachers in high school, college professors at Georgetown. My 6th-grade teacher was named Hilma Prather. She served on the Kentucky Board of Education when Gene Wilhoit was commissioner. Hilma taught me that I could do so much more, and she always had high expectations. What I remember about Hilma was her simple attitude of she wouldn’t accept less than my best. She would just fuss at me or give me a spanking or whatever I needed at that time because she wasn’t going to accept less than my best. That same lady was actually on the site-based council as a parent rep that selected me back at my alma mater at Somerset. She then left that site-based council to serve on the state board, and Hilma was kind of that first example of statewide service.

Then at Georgetown College, I had a professor ask me one day was I really OK with settling for being less than I was capable of being, and that was Dr. Louis Polsgrove. I remember because I was playing football and I was wearing cutoff shirts and not really caring about how I looked because I was just a football player. And he said, “Tommy, you’re more than just a football player. You could be an educator.” He went out of his comfort zone and he pushed, and he could have pushed me away but instead he did it in a way that made me want to be an educator as a career.

One of my first administrators that really started talking to me about being a school leader was Billy Frank Adams (editors note: Adams passed away July 7, 2013; Floyd spoke at the funeral). We spent a lot of time when I was a brand new middle school teacher at Meece Middle School (Somerset Independent), and we talked a lot about kids and interacting with teachers. We would go fishing at night and he would talk. He was what I would call an old-time school man: he had the wing-tipped shoes and the dress pants and the crisp shirt every day. But his listening skills, his empathetic skills and his wisdom – I always felt richer because he shared that with me when he was a principal. As a young teacher, I could see that for me someday if the opportunity ever came around.

What “words of wisdom” would you share with Kentucky educators?

All of the people that I have mentioned and many more imparted one thing to me that I have tried to carry for these 29 years. Those people that give all they had – they entered school at 22 and they left in their 50s and they were often tired; some of them didn’t leave until they were in their 70s – they were servants. Beyond my religious beliefs, in which servanthood is very important, I don’t know of any place that servanthood is better exemplified than in a Kentucky school. I am very proud to serve the people in this state. I especially want to serve the children in this state. When Dr. Holliday asked me to be chief of staff, I saw this opportunity as another transition the good Lord had laid at my feet – to serve the state that I’m so proud of;  the chance to work with Dr. Holliday, who I have the utmost respect for, and the people in this department; and to serve Kentucky educators.

All of us are going to run out of time. The longer you live, the more you become sure of that. When we get to the end of that time that we’ve served, what better way to have spent your life than in trying to help someone help a child – especially a Kentucky child.

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