New superintendent knows value of public education

Published 5:00 pm Thursday, October 6, 2016

AMERICUS — Few people know the value of a public education, or the value of good, caring teachers, more than Torrance Choates.  The new superintendent of Sumter County Schools grew up in Shermantown, an area in the heart of Stone Mountain, Georgia, named for the Union General who burned down most of Atlanta. It was a fitting name for the crime and violence that besieged its streets.
“We had one of the toughest neighborhoods in my school district,” said Choates.
Yet, Choates comes to the position with a master’s degree from Valdosta State University, as well as a doctorate from Nova Southeastern University.
He attributes his success largely to positive role models within the school system as well as teachers and administrators willing to go the extra mile to help the students who wanted to help themselves.
“We were going to do whatever we needed to do to get out of poverty,” Choates said. “Fortunately, there were teachers who cared and who were positive role models and supporters.”
He cites one elementary school principal who, to this day, he still keeps in touch with, Barbara Christmas.
“She really cared and she made a difference,” said Choates. “She actually rode with the bus driver through our rough neighborhood to control behavior.”
Choates also spent a great bit of time with the older men of the neighborhood in an effort to “try and get some knowledge.”
From the drive and determination he had to better his position in life came the characteristic that has come to define him as an administrator and as a person.
“My one core value is that I work hard,” he said. “A strong work ethic will propel you above everyone else.”
As his grandmother, Callie Sheppard, had told him: “Some people may be smarter than you, and some may be better than you. But that doesn’t mean they have to outwork you.”
Because of his background and his values, he expects teachers and administrators to go the extra mile for students, especially those in need.  He believes that poverty is not an excuse for a lack of academic success, but rather poverty should create an urgency in school employees to work extra hard, because education is the only way those children can rise above their circumstances.
“At the same time, it Important for us not to lower our standards because they are in poverty,” Choates said. “The students have to rise to our expectations, instead of us reaching down to theirs. That is happening all too often in many of Georgia’s public schools today.”
“To be a successful principal or administrator, you have got to have relentless determination,” he said. “The student’s future is dependent on that effort.”
Choates also recognizes his role in creating an environment where everyone in the system comes together to work toward clearly defined goals. He calls this “a unified goal congruence” and it involves getting everyone to understand and embrace their purpose in the education of students.
In developing those goals, he stresses the importance of academics and discipline.
“If you address academics, everything else falls into place,” he said. “Strong discipline is a prerequisite to having high academics in school.”
By establishing clearly defined standards and roles, by supporting the teachers and helping them realize their goals, he hopes to further awaken the passion that brought them to education in the first place.
“You want every teacher to meet their maximum potential,” he said. “That involves telling them when they are doing a good job, but if they did something wrong, letting them know, as well.
“When criticism happens in the context of people working together and doing the best they can for the students, it isn’t a personal affront, but rather a redirection for the betterment of all.”
“Everybody has to love what they’re doing,” he continued. “Support of my staff comes naturally to me. They have to know I’ve got their backs in order to do their jobs effectively.”
When his leaders put forward an idea that is different than his own, but that seems better than what he envisioned, he looks forward to embracing it.
“When my team comes up with their own ideas, it’s music to my ears,” he said. “If I make all the decisions as a leader, nobody does well in that situation because nobody else’s ideology is taking place.”
According to Choates, his most important job as superintendent will be to keep the interests of the students above all else.
“The biggest myth in education is that we’re here for the best interest of the students,” he said. “I have not always found that to be a true statement. During my time in Sumter County, we will be working for the students’ best interest.”
As a student himself, his passion, work ethic, and intensity found a perfect outlet when his high school wrestling coach took him under his wing. He went on to be an undefeated state champion and earned a full-ride scholarship to Morgan State University in Maryland. Again, it was going the extra mile and doing more than he had to do which led to his success.
“When practice ended, that was when my practice began,” he said.
His after-practice routine included 100 sit-ups and 100 push-ups a day, along with a series of sprints that replicated the all-out physical exertion of the match. But instead of preparing himself for the three rounds of a wrestling match, he prepared himself for six rounds so that when the actual match came around, it seemed less strenuous than what he was accustomed to.
“It’s the things you do when people aren’t around that make you a champion,” Choates said. “Fortunately, I think I’ve been able to transfer my determination in wrestling and make it work in my professional life. To be a successful principal or administrator, you have to have a relentless determination.”
Yet, somehow, this kid from the bad neighborhood found a source of relaxation and joy in a very unlikely place.
“I like horses,” he said. “I love to ride. It gives me a great peace.”
“I don’t have any bad habits,” he continued. “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke. But I love to ride.”
— Submitted by Sumter County Schools