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The True Story of Dr. Butler

Katherine Perry, Public Relations Assistant, Shelby County Schools

The True Story of Dr. Patricia Butler

Anxiety and uncertainty fill my mind as I report for duty on the first day of school to begin work as the project assistant for the newly created K-8 foreign language program. Two schools, one elementary and one middle school, will serve as the pilot schools for the grant-funded program. Although K-8 foreign language has long been identified as one of the priority goals in the district’s strategic plan, this is the first time funding is readily available for such a program. My job is to use my public relations and organizational skills to build a broad base of parental support for the program and maintain grant documentation and compliance. Naturally, I want to make a good impression, so I project my most professional image.
Because I am based at the middle school, I report there first. After getting acclimated and introducing myself to the teachers, I call the elementary school to introduce myself and ask the principal when she would like me to report for work at her school.
In a booming, yet disarming, voice that any Southern Baptist preacher would envy, Dr. Patricia Butler says, “Well, darlin’, I am so happy to have you as part of our Sycamore family. You come see me tomorrow morning at 9:00 and we’ll get you settled in your classroom. And I just know you’re going to do a wonderful job. If you need anything at all, just let me know.” She hangs up.
And so begins my relationship with one of the most remarkable leaders I will ever know. It takes me a few minutes to recover from our whirlwind conversation, and I begin to question how this woman could possibly know that I will do a good job. I don’t recall meeting her in the interview process. And why did she call me darlin’? In this day and age?
The next morning I report to Sycamore promptly at 9:00 as directed. As soon as she hears me in the front office, Dr. Butler comes bounding out of her office to greet me. Speaking at a speed of about ninety-miles-per-hour, the tall, slender, fifty-something blonde says, “Welcome to Sycamore. We’re so glad you’re here. I’m Dr. Butler and I’m going to take you to the Spanish classroom and introduce you to the teacher. She’ll show you around and answer any questions you may have. If you need anything at all, just let me know. I know you will be a blessing to us and to the children. I appreciate you.”
There it is again! Where does she get all this unsubstantiated confidence in my ability? Not that I’m not terrific; I am, of course. But, how does she know?
We get to the Spanish classroom and she introduces me to the teacher as, “Our wonderful new Spanish assistant. She’s going to do a great job and I know you two will make a wonderful team.” And then, just like the final gust of a hurricane, she’s out the door. The teacher, seeing the stunned look on my face, starts to laugh. “I know what you’re thinking,” she says. “But that’s our Dr. Butler. She is full throttle 24/7. You get used to it and you couldn’t ask for a better principal. She asks a lot, but she will always back you up.”
As the teacher and I discuss the curriculum for this new program, I learn that the regular classroom teachers will be required to show a video each week to reinforce the concepts that are introduced in the Spanish class. Immediately, I begin to formulate responses to any possible objections from the classroom teachers. After all, they are being asked to do “one more thing” for which they will not receive any extra money. In addition, this new endeavor will take instructional time away from those academic areas that are measured by the almighty standardized test. Surely we will face resistance.
To my surprise, the teacher has complete confidence that the classroom teachers will make every effort to support the program. “Well,” she says, “we may have a few who don’t like the idea, but we won’t have anyone who refuses to get with the program.” Oh, really? Now I’m wondering how heavy-handed the administration must be to instill such obedience.
Over the next few weeks, I see teacher after teacher gladly implementing the curriculum. Furthermore, they are asking for supplemental resources for their classroom to reinforce the language and strengthen their own foreign language skills.
Before taking this job, I did my research, like any good public relations practitioner. So, I know enough to know that this type of response is atypical. I need to analyze why this is going so well, so that we can reproduce these results elsewhere. As I question the faculty and staff about their attitude, the reasons for their enthusiasm always return to one person: Dr. Patricia Butler.
“If Dr. B. asks me to do it, then I’m ready,” says one teacher. “I would do anything for Dr. B.” says another. “She understands that this is important for our children,” says a veteran teacher, “perhaps more important than two more points on the TCAP.” I also learn that Dr. Butler had a heart-to-heart with the teachers before agreeing to participate in the grant. During this discussion, she shared her vision for what the program could mean to the students ¾ providing them with a global perspective and preparing them for a diverse world. Furthermore, she acknowledged the challenges that this would create for the teachers, academically and logistically, and promised her support to make this program a success.
Time and time again, as the explanations begin with “Dr. Butler says….” or “Dr. Butler wants….” or “Dr. B. needs us to…” , I become increasingly aware of the single greatest factor in the success of this program – complete administrative support.
On a more personal level, I soon learn that this kind of support is typical of Dr. Butler. Whenever a new faculty member joins the school or a new initiative comes down the pike, she exudes the same confidence and enthusiasm that I witnessed on my first day on the job. She makes everyone feel welcome and sets high expectations for each person and program under her direction.
In addition to the enthusiasm and confidence that Dr. Butler instills throughout the school, Dr. Butler makes every person feel safe within the Sycamore family. The school mascot is a lion, and in many ways, Dr. Butler shares the traits of the mother lioness protecting her cubs. When an impolite magazine vendor makes life unpleasant for the teachers, she promptly shows him to the door ¾ personally! She tells the office staff, “He is no longer welcome. He was rude to my people.” That’s the end of that.
As I continue through the school year at Sycamore, I soon learn that Dr. Butler’s attitude toward the faculty and staff is a mere extension of her attitude toward her students. Regardless of their ability, Dr. Butler has the highest expectations for each student in her care.
One morning, during my regular arrival duty, I stop to correct a fifth grade boy, the size of a small linebacker, who is running around the corner at lightening speed, about to slam smack into a kindergarten class. Upon my reprimand, the boy turns around to argue with me and takes a defiant stance. In a matter of seconds, Dr. Butler is there. She talks to the young man about his actions, my role, and her expectations. She explains to me that this student struggles with an emotional disturbance that interferes with his reasoning, but she adds that she has the same expectations of him as any other student.
“Once he’s aware that he’s making a mistake, and you tell him what you need from him, he will always rise to your expectations,” says Dr. Butler. “I know you are capable of doing the right thing,” she says to the boy. “And I know you won’t let me down.” The boy turns to me, apologizes, and asks what he can do to make it right.
Time and time again, I see how Dr. Butler’s love, encouragement, and patience have served to create high expectations and a sense of family at Sycamore Elementary School. From the students to the parents to the teachers, her consistent abilities to lead and inspire have made a powerful, positive impact on countless lives. And while I would like to replicate a dozen more just like her, there is only one “Dr. B.”