By MARINA WATERS
What Kimber Halliburton really wants to do each day is interact with the students. They are her favorite people in Washington County, after all, and she can’t wait to see how their day is going. But she also knows that behind that door to the Washington County Department of Education awaits the work of the director of schools that must be done first.
She arrives in her blue and white checkered dress and cowboy boots because today she’ll be visiting her favorite people at the Appalachian Fairground before adding a few school visits to her itinerary.
“This is my fair dress,” Halliburton said, beaming across her oak desk where she answers a few early morning emails before her right-hand woman, executive assistant and close friend Jennifer Moore tells her it’s time to head towards the fairground.
“I bought it probably a couple of months ago. I’ve never worn it. Now, Jenn might tell on me and tell you why my name’s Minnie Pearl – I usually wear my price tags, but I took it off because you were coming,” she admits, laughing. “I’ll wear it a couple of hours if it’s new, but honey, if it’s uncomfortable, (makes a tag-tearing hand motion), I take it off.”
But it’s not time to show off her fair dress just yet because first, like most days, Halliburton’s morning is filled with follow-up phone calls, coffee percolating in the corner of her sunny office and the occasional reminder from Moore to sign fundraiser forms and any and all other paper work awaiting the director of schools.
“It really just depends — there’ll be a week when I don’t get in a school,” Halliburton said. “Then there’ll be one where I’ve gotten into five schools. It just really depends on what’s going on like what I’ve gotten from the state.”
Before she can even finish the coffee in her steel, monogramed cup, Moore has brought the day’s schedule, fundraiser requests that need her signature and reminded Halliburton of three conversations she needs to have with various principals she’ll see throughout the day. But that’s not all that’s on Halliburton’s mind.
Work that never sleeps. (8 a.m.)
Not all paper work is as hopeful as fundraiser permission forms and documents detailing the total number of recent Daniel Boone and David Crockett high school graduates who went on to secondary school. In the midst of all this, the director of schools’ mind is also still on the document that compares the amount of funds available to surrounding city systems in comparison to that of county school systems.
To put the thought at rest, Halliburton picks up her iPhone and scrolls through her twitter feed for a moment.
“Hey, we gotta pick up on our tweeting,” Halliburton says to Moore from the next room. “That’s another thing; I can’t afford to hire a full-time twitter person. That’s basically what (communication managers) handle. And guess who does the social media for this county.”
That difference is a constant thought for Halliburton as it is for many others in the county system. But she’s got at least eight other items on the to do list scribbled on her office white board, at least two planned school visits and three buses full of third graders awaiting her 13 minutes down the road in Gray to worry about.
And it’s already 10 minutes until the field trip festivities begin.
Chimney pranks and feral cats. (9:12 a.m.)
There isn’t music coming out of the speakers of Halliburton’s immaculate SUV (though Moore insists the director loves to blare her music any chance she gets). Instead, the future site of the new Boones Creek School up ahead takes precedence over any song that could be playing on the radio. She’s driven by it probably a thousand times by now, but somehow the site of the red dirt covering the now level hillside stills pulls an excited gasp out of Halliburton. There’s only dirt and a few bulldozers making their way across the pasture, but Halliburton refers to it as “our new school” anyhow.
“My husband and I, on most weekends, we drive out here every Sunday to look at the progress. We drive up and sometimes we get out and walk around actually,” she said.
“There are a ton of feral cats and if there’s a new kitten out there, I go crazy. And Frank will go, ‘No, we’re not taking it home. That cat is wild, now. It’s not just a little kitten.’”
She passes the small white house on the property that’s nearly gone as she prepares to tell the tale of a joke she played on the head of maintenance.
Halliburton had already requested the enormous dormer from the house in hopes of using it as a reading house in the future school’s library. After Phillip Patrick, the head of maintenance, had to use a trailer to haul it, the director decided to add a little fun to it.
“I said to Jenn, ‘Call up Philip Patrick and tell him that Kimber wants the chimney,'” Halliburton recalled. “He was at central office. We were on the road. He said, ‘I’m sitting down in the grass. I’m about to have a heart attack.’”
The car is filled with laughter. But then Moore is already back to looking over the to-do list, stopping at a mysterious item added by Halliburton. Just like that, Halliburton is back to work, describing the role of instructional coaches and how in-depth meetings or “rounds” between instructional coaches and teachers on teaching strategies could be a possibility for the school system.
Can’t take the country out of the girl (9:29 a.m.)
With phone in hand and twitter at the ready, Halliburton makes her way over to two West View students who got the morning shift of bathing a couple cows near the Appalachian Fair’s farm buildings.
But the director of schools is anything but afraid to approach the cattle. In fact, she said seeing the livestock at the fair reminds her of the time she spent on her family’s farm in Nashville.
“I really do (feel at home with farm animals). My uncle, he had a beef cattle ranch. We had horses and chickens too,” she said. “We had to be up at six in the morning and then shower. That was the rule. You couldn’t come to the breakfast table without a shower.”
After Halliburton’s parents divorced, she’d spend time with her father on the farm and in the city of Nashville where her mother lived. She says she got a bit of the country life with a bit of the city growing up, but that her kids (one an electrical engineer in Nashville, the other a teacher in Metro Nashville and the third a student at the University of Tennessee) consider themselves “city people.” But for Halliburton, country settings suit her just fine.
After she takes a minute to “tweet out” a picture of the students with their cows and jot a few names into her running list of people she’s working hard to remember, it’s off to socialize with just about anyone who passes by. Sometime throughout the day, she even agreed to come back Saturday morning to show a cow at the fair’s cattle competition after talking to
local farmer for a few minutes.
For the Nashville native, that’s been the most surprising aspect of her director gig; not that she’s showing cattle (that too), but the amount of time around the clock that she dedicates to being a superintendent.
“I knew I would be busy,” she said. “I knew that this job would be pretty time consuming. I just had no idea that, I guess, 80 percent of my waking hours would be spent on this job.”
Between suddenly agreeing to show cows on any given Saturday and attending home Boone and Crockett football games on Friday nights in Washington County, Halliburton gives credit to her family for being able to give so much to her role as director of schools.
“I have a really good marriage. That helps because if I didn’t have an understanding husband…it’s kind of his job too. But that’s how it’s been since I started being a principal,” she said. “It was kind of a family affair for us, my kids included. They’d always come and help teachers with bulletin boards. When I became a principal, we’d go to a ball game or count text books. It’s always kind of been that way.”
Before becoming the director of schools for the county system, Halliburton began her career as a special education teacher and later took the leap of getting her master’s to become a principal. After a year of being an assistant principal in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, Halliburton got the chance to start her own school as head principal at a technology demonstration school.
“I wasn’t necessarily looking to get out of Nashville. I love Nashville. But I love it here. I knew I wanted to go to East Tennessee. I visited here years ago and Frank and I fell in love with the mountains. We just fell in love with East Tennessee.”
Apart from going from serving a district of 90,000 students to one of 9,000, the move was also about timing.
“I thought, ‘You know, it’s the perfect time if I’m ever going to apply to be a superintendent,’” Halliburton said, walking through the fairground during what might have been the quietest part of her morning. “Our youngest had graduated from high school and I thought, ‘I’ve got a great job here in Nashville. I’m just going to apply and see what happens.’ I had nothing to lose. You know, ‘if I don’t get a superintendent job, then that’s not in God’s plan.’”
The director pauses to take her final selfie with a county commissioner she passes on her way back out through the fair gates. Then it’s off for a quick lunch before getting to Halliburton’s favorite part of her job: going to the schools.
Back to high school (1:32 p.m.)
“I turned down a high school job once,” The director of schools said, taking a turn through the parking lot at Boone. “I won’t say I regret it, but Pedro Garcia, my superintendent at the time, talked to me about being a high school principal. My kids were little. I just felt like they wouldn’t even know who I am. I mean, a high school principal gig … ” she said, taking a pause. “I just think about how much fun I would have had as a high school principal.”
As much fun as she might have had in that role, as director of schools she makes a point to still have time with students, which is especially easy when they gravitate towards her as they did throughout the lunchroom at Boone.
One student took her hand and introduced himself to the director while another young man asked if she thought he still had time to join the Blazer Band. Meanwhile, a young girl stood off to the side, waiting to welcome Halliburton back with a hug and a short update on her senior year.
She specifically requested to meet the student Boone Principal Tim Campbell told her found over $100 on campus and immediately turned over to the office to find the rightful owner.
After a walk through the halls of Daniel Boone, and a bit of time spent in the classroom of one English class’ lively discussion of “The Scarlet Letter,” Halliburton stopped to introduce herself to a new teacher and to take pictures of another’s perfectly decorated classroom before it was on to her next stop, Ridgeview Elementary.
But her mind wasn’t on elementary education just yet; her mind was still reeling over the kids she saw at the high school. She spent the drive racking her brain over a way to honor the kid who found the money at the next board meeting. There was also one other student she couldn’t quite stop worrying about.
“I had a hard time getting that kid to talk to me. And usually I can get the loner kids to talk to me. But I think I caught him off guard,” she said, thinking back to a student sitting alone in the lunch room. She even asked the teacher on lunch duty if the student normally had friends to sit with.
“Those kids really need ya. And they’re kids that typically have a harder time fitting in,” she said. “That’s my kind of kid. Everybody loves the popular kids cause they’re easy to talk to and they’re usually personable. But I love talking to the other kids.”
It’s hard to walk through a high school and not think back on your own experience at that age. As Halliburton drove up the hill to Ridgeview, her mind went back to her own time in high school.
“All my friends were popular I would say. I wasn’t an athlete. I wasn’t a cheerleader. I was in student government. I wouldn’t say I was popular.
“I think popularity too, many times, is attributed to money. I probably couldn’t have been a cheerleader if I wanted to — and I’m not telling you a sob story. I don’t know how my parents would have afforded the uniform.”
Around the time a young Kimber Halliburton was making her way through high school, other factors put a bit of a strain on that time period for her as well.
“High school was hard for me. My brother had a really bad drug problem. And so that was a bit embarrassing at times, ya know? He would get arrested,” she said. “He was seven years older than me, but we all went to the same high school. And the teachers would go, ‘Oh, you’re Jeff’s little sister.’”
“One time he was actually in prison and there was a riot. He got shot and was on the news when I was in high school. People knew he was in and out of jail, but it’s not something you want to be reminded of all the time. But he was on the news and the next day at school, people were asking me about it and saying, ‘Oh I saw where your brother got shot,’ being nice, but still, ya know?”
The director doesn’t spend too much time dwelling on the details of her high school days. Instead she
’s decided to put those experiences toward offering education options for high schoolers who might find themselves in the same situation as her brother.
“I really relate to people who have something they’re struggling with like that. I mean we all like to do something excessively. Some people are addicted to working out. That’s more of a healthy addiction, but still it’s an addiction,” she said. “That’s why those Asbury and Midway kids — you’ve gotta have things like that for those kids that wouldn’t necessarily be able to make it at a Crockett or a Boone. It’s too much for them. The social stuff is too much for them.
“It might not be to that degree where you’re incarcerated, but I think everybody has something they carry around.”
Every picture a story (1:45 p.m.)
Ridgeview, one of the newest Washington County Schools, is filled with beautifully painted cafeteria and library murals, and for Halliburton, plenty of opportunities for photo-ops.
It’s pretty easy to get a daily dose of a day in the life of Kimber Halliburton if you were to take a look at her twitter account complete with photos of all the people, classrooms, events and places she comes across in a day. As she made her way, still in what Moore called her “Hoe-down” dress, the director took a second to explain the reason she takes so many photos everywhere she goes.
“You know, my dad died when he was 54. I have one picture of me and my father and it’s not even a good one,” she said. “So I’ve driven my kids crazy taking pictures. That’s how you document history. My dad didn’t even own a camera.”
As much as she loves capturing photos, when the director steps foot into any school, it’s clear she’s ready to see the teachers hard at work. But she also really misses the interaction she used to have with students back when she was working in a school.
“I want to get to know more of them. The sad thing is, for me, I got to know a lot of the senior class from last year. And they’ve moved on so I’ve kind of learned that I need to get to know the freshman and sophomores. It’s not that I don’t know them, it’s just that I need to invest more time over a longer period of time,” she explained. “I always tell them, ‘Come up to me at a football game. Come say hi. Come sit with me.’ I mean, I want to get to know them.”
Around the next corner of the elementary school, the director spends time looking at one teachers new chrome books she just received. From there, the director stops in the library to ogle over the LEGO board and to say hi to faculty and staff in a professional development meeting.
By the time she shuts the driver door to her SUV, Halliburton already knows where she’s headed next; she’s ready to show off a new system-wide feature that’s soon to be complete in each school throughout the county.
The reading escape (3:01 p.m.)
Maybe it’s her background in education that helps her perfectly explain exactly what it is she wants someone to understand or maybe it’s the excitement she exudes that could almost rub off on her listener. Either way, as she rolls up to Boones Creek Elementary, the director spent a few moments describing the school system’s new book rooms and what it could mean for teachers and students in a way that would make you want to sit down with a good book right then and there.
Along with the new instructio
nal coaches, who work one-on-one with teachers to better advance their skills, the school system is adding these reading rooms that serve as a reading space where teachers can take his or her classes while also serving as a place to keep any items teachers could share instead of buying more than one at a school.
After her explanation, Halliburton is bound and determined to see the reading room at Boones Creek Elementary that she had heard so much about.
It’s not all about the room though; improving reading scores has been a goal that Halliburton has kept in the back of her mind since becoming the director.
“You know that prisons are planned (according to) third grade reading scores,” the director said. “It’s sad. If you’re not reading by third grade, that’s like a life sentence for not doing well. Not for everybody — there’s those oddball stories where you hear, ‘my dad only had a fifth grade education and he’s a wealthy tobacco farmer.’ You hear that. But for the most part, if you’re not reading by third grade, it’s really hard to catch you up.”
She’s excited to look through the room and all the potential learning that’s already taking place at the tables and reading corners in the room, but as a kindergarten class that just started school a couple weeks ago passes by, you can really almost see Halliburton’s heart melt at the sight of their smiling faces.
After making one last lap through the round part of the elementary school, Halliburton thanks assistant principal Jordan Hughes and the folks at the front office to head back to her own office where she’ll polish off a few more emails and look over a few more documents.
But the trip back to the office is a little easier when you’ve got a glorious view of the Appalachian Mountains — and when you’re still relatively new to East Tennessee.
“Susan Kiernan (the WCDE Director of Human Resources) says, ‘I love seeing your reaction to mountains because you’re like a little girl’ because I didn’t grow up around these. I’m just not accustomed to it,” Halliburton said, gazing at the vast view from the entrance of the elementary school. “I’m getting more accustomed to them, but the mountains to me are just, ‘wow.’ Jennifer says she’s going to take me to the prettiest view she says is in this region.”
Though Moore is yet to drive her by that spot (which she says is near South Central Elementary), it’s unclear when they’ll find the time because for Halliburton, who stops off to get a coffee, black, for Moore and a coffee with eight creamers and two Splendas for herself, the day is still young.
When it works out (4:30 p.m.)
The work day is coming to a close for most, but for Halliburton, there’s often still to-do list items to cross off (or leave on the white board for another day.)
“We have days where we’ll have meetings scheduled, but some days, it’s so unpredictable,” Moore explained, sipping her coffee as she headed back into the place the morning began. “You’ll have one thing on your mind that you want to accomplish and then all this other unexpected stuff comes at you.”
After a trip around the fair and three school visits, Halliburton doesn’t miss a beat as she heads back into her office. She says when she gets home to her husband Frank and two cats, Harlow and Ellie May, she’ll still tend to a few emails, so she doesn’t mind taking a minute to sip her coffee — and look back on some highlights from her year so far.
It’s been just over a year since Halliburton first got the job as the director of schools. She’s the first woman to ever do so in Washington County and it’s quite possibly the first time for an outsider as well.
“So I interviewed for the job and I thought the board really liked me. That’s hard to determine and there were a lot of local candidates and some outsiders too,” she recalled. “But as we were driving home, Frank goes, ‘I think you really did a good job on the interview. I think they really liked you. The problem is, these people that interviewed are going to be with them for two more weeks. And you’re going back to Nashville.’”
She took the advice of other friends of hers who are also superintendents and decided to be there in person for the vote that would name the new Washington County director of schools. Knowing maybe two people in the room, Halliburton asked to hold a perfect stranger’s hand and awaited her fate; either she’d have the job or she’d be facing a long drive back to Nashville alone.
“I remember looking around at the walls in the board room and I thought I was going to cry. I’m not a cryer. I don’t cry much, but I got this choke in my throat and I looked around and thought, ‘Okay Lord, I really wanted to be here, but it’s not in your plan.’”
After looking back on getting the job and what all she’s done throughout the year, it’s hard for her to picture her life anywhere but in Washington County which now truly feels like home to her.
“It takes a while for a place to feel like home. And I think probably after about three or four months, Frank and I went home to Nashville,” she explained. “He went back first and hecame back one weekend and he goes, ‘it doesn’t feel like home anymore. Nashville doesn’t feel like home anymore.’ and I said, ‘Really?’ About two or three weekends later, I went home. My son and daughter were there and I stayed in my bed — but it doesn’t feel like home. It’s really different now. This place is truly home.”
There’s still one aspect of life in Washington County she says is completely different from the big city; for Halliburton, she’s still in awe of the kindness of people in this region.
“Relationships are important. Whether you’re in a big district or a small district or a small district. Ya know? If people like you, then when you have something tough that you have to face with them or maybe even about them, they accept it better because you’ve already got that relationship. You start off positive.”
“I’ve enjoyed it,” she said, thinking back on all the people she’s gotten to know in her time as director. “I love the people here. I’ve never met better people and better kids. The kids are so ‘Yes ma’am,’ ‘no ma’am’. They’re so mannerly. There’s just a different level of respect. They’re just taught that here at home.”
She heads out the door after turning out all the lights in her corner of the central office. It’s about time to hang up her fair dress and cowboy boots until next year’s fair. But she’s got quite a few other events to attend before then, like the first home Crockett football game the next night.
As for the to-do items on her white board and in her phone, she turns to the advice she often gives her own kids when they call with one of life’s many problems:
“I used to say, ‘Oh no, how is this going to happen?’,” she said after a long day of work and some unanswered questions. ‘But I have found out — things have a way of working out.”