Remember Ben Affleck’s 2016 thriller “The Accountant?” In it, Mr. Affleck plays an autistic forensic accountant who just so happens to be a lethal hit man as well. (Thank you, Hollywood.)
At one point in the movie, the term “neuro-typicals” is used as a way the autism community describes people without a neurological disorder and who are not on the autism spectrum.
“Neuro-typicals,” Mr. Afflect’s character states. “The rest of us. What if we’re wrong? What if we’ve been using the wrong tests to quantify intelligence in children with autism? Your son’s not less-than. He’s different. Now, your expectations for your son may change over time, they might include marriage, children, self-sufficiency. They might not. But I guarantee you, if we let the world set expectations for our children, they’ll start low, and they’ll stay there. And maybe … Just maybe … He doesn’t understand how to tell us. Or … we haven’t yet learned how to listen.”
The part of that quote that really sticks out to me is the part about how if we let the world set expectations for our children, they’ll start low and they’ll stay there. And that quote reminds me of one of the best teachers I have ever seen — Ritch Campbell.
A not-so-typical teacher, Ritch offers lessons not only for youngsters and their parents, but for young adults and millennials who may still be trying to find their own way.
Both of my kids had Ritch Campbell (affectionately known as the Big RC). He is a kindergarten teacher at Siegel Elementary in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Unlike any educator I have ever met, Ritch approaches education from the with perspective that understands the most basic need of people (especially children) is to connect and feel connected. He did it in many ways with my children, but it began by seeing and celebrating the differences in each student (and parent) who walked into his classroom – a classroom that he appropriately titled “The Rock.”
He wore the same thing everyday, including overalls, white undershirt and steel-toed work boots, letting people know from day one what he expected from anyone that entered The Rock – hard work.
Why did he brand his classroom as The Rock? On the first day of school, Ritch communicated to the students the expectations that he had about people who spent time on The Rock. One of the first expectations he set was about weather and how it impacts attitude. I remember him saying, “at some point in the very near future, you are going to wake up and come to class and it will be raining. And while your parents, other kids in classes, and teachers may be impacted, we won’t.” One student looked at Ritch and asked “why?” Ritch replied without hesitation “because when it rains at The Rock, we work harder. In fact, when it does rain, sleet or snow, I will ask you what happens when it does that, and your answer together will be – We Work Harder.” Just that fast, Ritch was conditioning the students (and the parents) to not see weather as an obstacle, but an opportunity to work in difficult conditions, thus changing how they connected to their work.
Here was his Connection Point: Teach others to develop a mindset grounded in using adversity to accelerate growth.
Ritch also had a set of rules that he referenced from the very first day of class. My favorite is Rule 11. This simple expectation changed how students connected with themselves and with each other. His rules are pasted below. I have a copy hanging in my office and find them helpful for college students as well.
The following are referred to as “Ritch’s Rules of Life.” These are discussed during our highly secretive and exclusive meetings which members of The Rock experience frequently.
- Life is not fair.
- Have good friends and good manners.
- Boys always wipe the toilet and put the seat down after using the restroom.
- Be nice to animals.
- Don’t lie.
- Don’t argue with authority.
- Don’t call Ritch “mama.”
- You can’t always get what you want.
- Do the right thing – just because it is the right thing to do.
- Never ever give up – winners don’t quit and quitters don’t win.
- A good kid takes care of himself — a better kid takes care of others.
- Be dedicated to learning – never stop learning.
- Think about the consequences of your actions before you act.
- You can’t have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat.
- Do something extra nice for someone each and every day.
- (Lillian’s Rule — she made it up) Don’t pretend like you don’t hear the man when you do hear the man.
- Don’t be a whiny baby.
Connection Point No. 2: Have a set of expectations that everyone can see and can connect to that defines the culture.
In the back of his room, Ritch had a poster of his grandfather. On the picture, Ritch had painted a yellow halo over his grandfather’s head. To the students, his grandfather’s name was “Angel Bob” and Ritch told the students that Angel Bob watched over the room and that if he saw a child doing something good, he would send that child a letter.
My son, Jack, ran to the mailbox every day that he was a student in Ritch’s class. He would say to me, “Dad, I just know today he saw me doing something good.” A letter finally came, and I honestly believe that up until that point in Jack’s life, he might have considered it the greatest day of his life. Angel Bob, it turns out, gave each kid a chance to connect to something bigger than themselves.
Connection Point No. 3: Catch people doing good and recognize them in a special way.
Ritch routinely dedicated class time to playing guitar and teaching the kids historical facts through music. Using versions of nursery rhymes and classics from the Rolling Stones (which he called the Pebbles), you could find Ritch playing the guitar with 17 mesmerized kids. To this day, years and years later, my children still know all of the presidents and other historical facts based on Ritch’s songs.
Connection Point No. 4: Serve up knowledge in a way people can get it.
Ritch occasionally held meetings with the students in the bathroom of his room that began with the “flush master” (the student designated to flush the toilet to start the meeting), as well as someone who was “the keeper of the light and keeper of the dark.” In this scenario, everyone in the room had a job and they did it with precision. They came to class wanting to do their job. The genius behind the meeting is that it was a calm way (when or if necessary) to move the kids into a safe place should the school go into lock down.
Connection Point No. 5: Leaders anticipate change and build systems to manage it.
During the latter part of the year that Jack was in Ritch’s class, Ritch sent me an email letting me know that I had won the “Dad of the Year” award and that I should come to his class in order to be recognized. When I showed up on the appointed day and time, Ritch had a ceremony for me and told the kids that in all of his years as a teacher he had only awarded a handful of dads this prestigious honor. I could see how proud my son was. And, if I am being honest, it’s something I’m still proud of to this day. Now, years later, when I happen to see Ritch around town, he will at some point bring that award up. It reminds me of his genius in leading others, or better said, getting others on board to follow him. Ritch knows that creating meaningful relationships between teachers and parents can have a lifetime of impact on the people who matter the most to both parties – the students.
Connection Point No. 6: Leaders go first. And good leaders make good followers.
I recently launched the Center for Student Coaching and Success on the campus of Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. I believe its role on campus is to provide an opportunity for students to go through a self-awareness journey that leads to self-discovery and self-direction through personal assessment and personal coaching. It is my hope to not simply train students for jobs to enter the workforce, but find opportunities to add value to the world in ways that they may not even know exist. I’ve made the six connection points I learned from Ritch tenants of that instruction.
Yes, Ritch’s many lessons indeed remind me of that passage in “The Accountant.” When I hear it now, I always think about Ritch and his uncanny ability to see how each student had a different set of intelligences, and then how Ritch put them in a position to live in that genius.
If I’ve painted a proper picture of Ritch for you then it perhaps won’t surprise you to know that Ritch doesn’t see the genius in any of what he does. In fact, if you ask him, he will simply tell you in his humble manner, “Aw, it’s just how I do it.”
Ritch also won’t win any award or be named teacher of the year either. Not because he doesn’t deserve it, but because he won’t apply for it. And if someone suggested he should (believe me, I have), he would very nicely tell them (and he has) that he is too busy teaching to apply for any awards.
It’s easy these days to point out what’s wrong with public education in America. But there is also no denying that there are people like Ritch Campbell who make a daily investment in students in ways that most of us couldn’t if we tried. For one day – for one article — let’s celebrate something that’s right about education in America. This is for you, Ritch. Keep going your own way. In my eyes, you are my Teacher of a Lifetime.