JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Fairmont Elementary Principal Carol McGill remembers the moment she realized literacy would be paramount if she became a lead elementary school principal.
It was the late 1990s and McGill was an assistant principal at Indian Trail Middle School. It’s a role that typically steps in when kids need disciplinary measures.
“In that experience, I found that a good 90% of the kids who were acting out were doing so to compensate for not being able to read,” McGill said.
A passion for reading had launched a young McGill — growing up in a loving, hardworking 1960s Atlanta-area family that didn’t have a frame of reference for the benefit of college — into a broader world. The son of a sharecropper, McGill’s dad had left school before junior high to help work on the farm.
“When I mentioned that I was going to school, they were like, you know, ‘educated people don’t have any common sense,'” McGill said with a grin. “I was like, ‘well, you know I think I want to give that a try.’ They were thinking it would not work out, but when it did they were very proud.”
Lots of people are proud of McGill now as she gets set to retire as Johnson City’s longest-tenured principal. She’ll finish her 21st year at Fairmont with the school having captured a host of recognitions for academic success through the years at both the state and national levels. Reading — reading early, starting in kindergarten, and reading often — has been at the heart of McGill’s approach.
“Early, they’re just such sponges and they’re optimistic,” McGill said of early learners.
“If you have early — early, early — lots of just pouring it on with reading, lots of phonics, lots of opportunities to read, lots of books going home, lots and lots of literacy activities.
“Every night they take home two books, their parents read it to them first and then they read independently, and then they read hundreds and thousands.”
The formula worked. It worked so well, in fact, that current Johnson City Schools Superintendent Steve Barnett said it took Fairmont from being an underperforming school when she arrived to arguably being the most decorated in one of Tennessee’s highest-performing districts.
Barnett took the principalship at Towne Acres Elementary in 2005 and said he and McGill, who’s about 20 years older, became fast friends and collaborators. Barnett had taught for only five years before becoming an administrator in the Knoxville area, whereas McGill had taught in a half-dozen communities as her husband, Steve, coached football at a variety of colleges and universities.
“Every place she went she got a job, and it’s not because her husband was a football coach, it’s because she interviewed and people were like, ‘we need this teacher,'” Barnett said.
“And then she turned that being a highly effective teacher who expected every kid to learn into being a principal that did not tolerate the idea that a child could not learn in school.”
Barnett said that belief powered McGill in her first years at Fairmont, which came at a time when she could have been looking at retirement already. He said her drive — rooted in a love for the students and a belief teachers could lead them to excel — was a change of pace when she arrived.
“Early on I know there was a lot of pushback from people because it was a big change, it was a very big culture shift for them. But look what has happened. They have been a Blue Ribbon School and a national Title I school of distinction.”
McGill herself said her approach was a bit unconventional when she arrived at Fairmont ready to bury the place in books.
“There’s a big divide, and (one thought was) kindergarten should look like play school,” McGill said. “And I said I love the opportunities they can have socially, but we have to help them have literacy first. Then we give them that and they’re very pleasant learners and they’re very happy, they’re smiling and successful, and you get that then.
“As they grow older, socially things start to pull at them and it’s my burning desire for all level learners but for sure our at-risk learners, early literacy is the key.”
Words from a coach that changed McGill’s life
McGill said the drive comes from wanting to influence children and teachers in the way that Steve McGill’s high school football coach influenced her.
McGill was growing up in a home where reading material was largely absent, but she had taken to reading voraciously to broaden her horizons and, now and then, escape. Life wasn’t bad, she said. It just had its expectations and limits, especially from her dad’s side of the family.
“You graduate from high school and you get a great job at the courthouse filing papers. That’s your command. And breakfast you pay for the day after you’re 18.”
McGill wasn’t thinking much outside that path when her boyfriend’s football coach, a young educator named Buddy Nix, said “maybe Carol should go to college.”
“We were like, ‘if he said it, it must be what should happen,'” McGill said.
She and Steve, who died exactly three years ago, got married after high school and McGill worked two years as a teacher’s assistant near home so she could qualify for a Pell Grant. Then it was off to Livingston University, now University of West Alabama, where Steve played football.
The first two decades of McGill’s teaching career saw her follow Steve through coaching stops in six states. When she began teaching at Cherokee in 1993, the McGills’ daughter and son, then 16 and 8, fell in love with Johnson City and so did she.
“So we said, ‘you know big boy, we moved with you six states, 15 times,'” McGill said. That settled it, and Steve McGill finished out his career with ETSU and Tusculum. “I loved his work, he loved mine, so that makes 52 years of pretty good stuff.”
McGill said the relationship with Nix has lasted.
“We kept up with him and still do,” McGill said of Nix, who was a co-coach with Steve McGill on many of his pre-Johnson City stops. “A lifelong mentor, and I’ve written him notes, I’ve told him how many kids he allowed me to impact with that one sentence.”
That impact has been boundless, and McGill said she thinks her background has allowed her to connect with parents who might feel intimidated by people with higher education or wonder about their child’s potential.
“I go, ‘let me talk to you about how I can give you hope for your child and how your child can be all that they could possibly excel to be, and this is how it started for me.’ I just say, ‘I know how this feels, I know how you feel, I know how my parents felt, and this is what can happen because we’ve got to believe in them and plant the seed.'”
Proving the method
McGill said the school system was very supportive from the beginning as she deployed her reading-first approach. She said every book order went through her hands, and that each classroom has at least 1,200 books.
Not only has the approach borne itself out in student success, but after a time, Tennessee’s own K-12 standards became much more aligned with what McGill had been doing all along. Over the past several years, a focus on students reading at grade level by third grade has taken hold nationally, with much concern about the long-term risks when that’s not the case.
McGill’s focus on reading hasn’t meant short shrift for other subjects, with math scores often topping reading scores at Fairmont.
“Math is contextual. It’s real life. So real life word problems, and they read. I tell people, it’s that gateway, and then all other subjects depend on your ability to read.”
Barnett said he’d gladly keep McGill around for as long as the 73-year-old wanted to stay.
“I always caution people when they say, ‘when is this person going to retire?'” he said. “If they’re really highly effective like Carol McGill, why do you want her to retire? I mean, that’s just wrong.
“She said she’s never allowed herself to become comfortable and feel like she arrived, and you can’t (think that) and be effective. That’s the magic.”
Johnson City School Board Chair Kathy Hall knows it well. Her grown son Hunter started at Fairmont in 2003.
“The first thing that struck me was she was pushing books on us immediately,” Hall remembers. “She was very welcoming and excited to have a new student but she made it clear that she was all about reading.”
It worked for Hunter Hall, who went on to major in English and is now, as his mom put it, “gainfully employed.” Hall said Fairmont, where she regularly drops in to read to students, laid a great foundation for her son.
“She really builds a culture of first of all making that school a community, inviting everyone in, making sure that everyone feels welcome, and setting high standards and expectations with a lot of support.”
A reluctant parting
McGill said she’s ready for more time with her grown children and grandchildren, who live in the area, but that doesn’t mean leaving her home away from home will be easy.
“Kids are so warm and accepting and brighten everybody’s day,” she said. “People are always saying ‘oh, the kids are hard.’ Kids are still the kids. You know, they have different pressures and different ingredients that complicate their lives. But over time, the kids are still the precious part.”
McGill feels good about the choice Barnett made for her successor. Jodee Dotson was a reading coach in the system for 16 years and has spent the last two as a Mountain View Elementary assistant principal.
“I’m so confident and so glad,” she said. “I think it’s a way to keep our legacy with reading and uphold that and make greater things happen.”
“I think Dr. Dotson will continue that culture with her experience as an English language arts reading coach and from her experience at Fairmont I believe she’s a great fit at that high performing school,” Hall said.
For her part, McGill said she’ll have time to pay more attention to education policy on a broader level. She has some thoughts already.
“I would love to talk to the politicians and tactfully, courteously encourage them to turn to the grassroot educators at successful schools,” McGill said.
“Systems like at our central office, our superintendent, about what works in schools, and not depend on other legislators who may or may not have a background in education to make those big, big decisions.”