News & Stories

June 9, 2020

Teacher, Leader, Principal

 

By Rick Woodall

Portrait courtesy of ZoomWorks Photography;
other images provided by Dr. Luther McDaniel, Harols Faison

 

Dr. Luther McDaniel (99C) saw the need for African American role models in education long before he ever taught a class or drew up a lesson plan. Although blessed himself to grow up with a father who was a teacher and a coach, he found few African American role models – especially men – in the Rome schools he attended. He was determined to help fill the gap when he arrived at Berry as a freshman in 1995.

“Encouraging minority students to pursue teaching is very important,” he said in the spring 1996 Berry Chronicle. “I want to give someone else a positive black role model – something they might not have otherwise.”

Consider that mission accomplished.

McDaniel_1.jpgCommunity builder

Today, McDaniel is completing his 12th year as a principal in Athens, Ga., and his first at Gaines Elementary School, where 70% of the 520 students are African American. He took the assignment knowing that Gaines ranks among the state’s poorest and lowest-performing schools. When he walks the halls, he’s not simply a symbol of discipline or authority. He’s an example students can relate to and aspire to emulate.

“I feel like my whole path from Berry to this school year has really developed me to meet the needs of this specific community,” said the husband and father of two. “I just feel like it was a calling on my life to be here.”

In his first year at Gaines, McDaniel has strived to infuse a new culture at the school, working with teachers and staff to create connections and build pride among the students and parents. He went so far as to design a new logo for the school and craft a new slogan: “We Make Gaines.”

“The ‘we’ is all of us,” he explained. “‘We Make Gaines.’ Not poverty. Not our school zone that people will complain about by saying it was drawn to set us up for failure. ‘We Make Gaines.’
We, the adults.”

Often, McDaniel and his staff must address difficulties faced outside the school before they can help students achieve in the classroom.

“When you’re dealing with children who come from cycles of poverty that you have committed yourself and your work to disrupting, there are certain things that you just can’t overlook or ignore,” he stated. “It could be something as simple as a child not wanting to come to school on ‘pajama day’ because his mama can’t afford to buy him pajamas, so I run over to Walmart.

“It’s something Sofia McDaniel [his daughter] never has to worry about,” he added. “It’s something that I never experienced. I never worried about where I was going to sleep tonight. I never worried about whether I was going to eat between lunch today and breakfast at school tomorrow, so I’ve had to develop an awareness and tap into my own sense of empathy while leading our staff to help meet the students’ needs.”

"...my classmates saw beyond my color. I wasn’t just a black student at Berry –
I was Luther.”

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Finding his path

As a child, McDaniel never imagined that Berry would be the entry point to his career in educational leadership. In his mind, the campus on the north side of town was a place to ride bicycles, not a source of opportunity – at least not for him.

“Growing up in Rome as an African American male, I never considered Berry,” he recalled. “Berry just was not for me. People who went to Berry didn’t look like me, and those who did look like me I couldn’t relate to.”

His outlook changed when the late Dr. Leo Anglin reached out with an offer to participate in the Pathways scholarship program for minority teacher-education students. McDaniel was among the very first students to participate in Pathways, which continues to provide financial and professional-development support for Berry students today.

McDaniel was flattered by the opportunity but unsure he measured up academically. Still, he took the chance and quickly discovered a welcoming community that was excited to embrace him as one of its own.

“I was elected freshman class president,” he stated. “That really encouraged me to realize that my classmates saw beyond my color. I wasn’t just a black student at Berry – I was Luther.”

McDaniel was elected class president each of his four years at Berry – continuing a trend that dated back to his selection as “fire chief” for his fifth-grade class – to go along with other leadership positions. In 1997, he was named Outstanding Representative for the Student Government Association, and his senior year he received the prestigious Coca-Cola Minority Achievement Award.

Providing guidance throughout were staff members overseeing the Pathways program and his work supervisor and mentor at The Martha Berry Museum, the late Lillian Farmer.

“She embraced me almost like a grandson,” McDaniel said. “There was mentoring from her, there was support, and there was some accountability at times.”

McDaniel began working for Farmer the summer before his freshman year and continued throughout his Berry career, honing skills he would later use as a teacher while sharing stories of Berry history with museum guests and on campus tours.

“The ability to turn Berry history into a story is really what I carried over into my classroom,” he said. “There were certain ways that you could share the history with certain groups that made it interesting, that made it relatable, and that’s really the approach that I took as I was teaching. Everybody who says, ‘I hated history’ or ‘history was my worst subject’ – well, you didn’t have me for a teacher.”


“Gaines Elementary is obviously referred to as a school and is often referred to as a family, but this past week we were a community."

 

Heeding the call

McDaniel’s career in education started as a student-teacher at his alma mater, Rome High School. He continued teaching at Rome after graduating from Berry and at the tender age of 28 earned promotion to assistant principal. Although a source of great pride for his family, the promotion put him in the potentially uncomfortable position of supervising colleagues who had once been his teachers.

“I didn’t go into it trying to be a boss,” he said. “That would have been a huge mistake and probably would have taken my career trajectory in another direction. My leadership style is servant leadership, so even at that point I was just trying to serve and support. I did not feel the need to be a boss and exert my positional power.”

McDaniel’s desire to serve others — fueled by his strong faith — ultimately led him to Gaines Elementary School. At the time, he was considering a new path as a principal supervisor after 11 years as principal at Whitehead Road Elementary School, also in Athens. He even went so far as to participate in the National Principal Supervisor Academy, but the further he went down that road, the more he realized that his true calling was at the school level working with students – specifically those at Gaines.

“When I left Whitehead Road, I was the only principal most of those children ever knew,” he said. “That’s the commitment that I want to make to the Gaines population. They deserve a good education. They deserve a good principal. They deserve the best that we have, because that’s the only way that they’re going to overcome all the challenges that they really didn’t ask for.”

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Heart work

Those challenges were only heightened by the prolonged disruption in day-to-day activities necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Like educators elsewhere, McDaniel and his staff rose to the task, working together to meet critical needs and ensure that students knew they still had a home at Gaines, even if they couldn’t physically attend classes.

“Gaines Elementary is obviously referred to as a school and is often referred to as a family, but this past week we were a community,” McDaniel said in late March as his school transitioned to remote learning. “Our primary concern was whether our kids would have enough food to eat. As our district developed a plan to provide meals to students during the school closure, our teachers showed up to create packets of learning activities, to check out digital devices to students and to serve on the meal-delivery buses.”

On a whim, McDaniel reached out to the University of Georgia food services department to see if any perishable food items were available for possible donation to the Gaines community. The response was 130 gallons of milk, dozens upon dozens of eggs, and lots of yogurt for East Athens families.

“It seems odd to think that with no kids in our building, this might have been one of the busiest weeks I have ever had as a principal,” McDaniel reflected. “But this also might have been one of the most meaningful weeks I have had in my 12 years as a principal: A servant leader engaged in a full week of pure service to my school community. Hard work but, most importantly, HEART work.”

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