That’s when Duncan, along with almost all the educators in the Calhoun County school system, attended a back-to-school motivational conference at Hill Crest Baptist Church. Sponsored by the school system, the event brought in John Croyle of the Big Oak Ranch and Craig Scott, a survivor of the Columbine, Colo., school shootings, to implore teachers to start school Monday with a kids-first attitude.
“First team is always ready to play,” Croyle said. “Second team is dreading having to play.”
Croyle shared the stories of some of the abused children he’s encountered while operating the Big Oak Ranch, where parentless children are invited to live. From the stage at the theater-like sanctuary in Saks, Croyle, who is also a speaker and a former Alabama football player, reminded teachers that, in some cases, school is a child’s refuge.
“I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but most of us in this room, we don’t have problems. We have issues,” Croyle said.
He told the educators, maintenance workers and lunchroom employees to not to let life’s small hindrances — lack of sleep, a burned finger — get in the way serving children.
The message, though tough at times, Duncan said, was a good one.
“I think it’s great that he is very straightforward,” said Duncan, a speech therapist. “I think sometimes we need that reminder that it’s all about the kids.”
Scott, who lost friends and his sister Rachel Scott in the 1999 shootings, challenged the teachers to reach out to the children everyone else is ignoring.
Scott travels to speak to teachers and students across the country, and encourages people to eliminate prejudices, inundate themselves with positive influences and dream big. Each of the challenges he discussed Friday was linked to a characteristic exemplified by his sister or his friends who died in the infamous school slayings.
His sister, for example, surrounded herself with positive influences, he said.
At the end of his message Scott encouraged people to take “Rachel’s Challenge.” Following the conference, teachers clustered around a big banner with the words, “I Accept Rachel’s Challenge” written on it. By the time the educators left the church, the white space on the banner was almost completely covered in signatures.
“They really accept the challenge,” Scott said.
Several teachers at the conference said the meeting was more than lip service — they said it was encouraging.
Scott said long ago teachers focused on nurturing children’s hearts first. He said if educators would do that again, children and their school systems would flourish.
Cerilla Roe, a Pleasant Valley High School English teacher, echoed Scott’s statements. Teaching, she said, is mainly about students.
“I teach kids,” Roe said. “English is just a tool I use to do that.”
Star staff writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LJohnson_star.