Mike Crabtree’s first teaching experience wasn’t a success.
“They were rude,” he said of the educators who talked and read the newspaper while he, as a young emergency medical technician, delivered a required lesson on first aid. “I think somebody was knitting in the back of the room.”
“I had a meltdown on them,” said Crabtree, who retired last week after 32 years as an educator. “I remember telling them, ‘If I acted like this two years ago, you would have sent me to the principal’s office. You’re not paying attention. What I’m trying to teach you is more important than anything you taught me. It’s about saving lives.’”
“They looked and then went back to reading the paper,” he said.
When he complained to his girlfriend at the time, Melissa told him that if he thought he could do better, “the world always needs good teachers.”
“I wasn’t always the best student in school, but I liked to learn, and I liked to share with others what I’ve learned,” he explained last week of his choice for a career in education.
Originally a business major at Tennessee Tech, Crabtree had been juggling full-time work and was a mediocre student when he dropped out and worked for the ambulance service.
He returned to earn a bachelor’s degree in secondary education, a master’s degree in elementary education and an endorsement in special education. Later he would earn an educational specialist degree, too.
Frustrated by his job search, Crabtree mailed applications to 52 districts before Blount County Schools hired him in 1988.
His job was to travel across 17 schools and work with students in the talented and gifted program, an experience that not only taught him how to engage students but developed relationships with some who are BCS administrators today.
“Mike was my first real in-school male role model,” said Justin Ridge, coordinator of innovative programs for the district.
“He was somebody you wanted to be like — still is,” Ridge said.
Crabtree first impressed then 10-year-old Ridge at Lanier by knowing the conference of every NFL team.
Today, Ridge remembers Crabtree introducing students to computers and coding in the early 1990s and sees his influence on the programs Ridge leads at the Samuel Everett School of Innovation and districtwide online learning.
Carpenters Elementary Principal Courtney Whitehead was a fourth grader at Lanier when she met Crabtree, and he was the assistant principal at Carpenters Middle School her first year as a teacher. Now his son, Derrick, is her assistant principal.
Jon Young loved attending the program with Crabtree as the teacher at Fairview, and Young’s senior year at William Blount was the year Crabtree became an assistant principal.
“He’s very student oriented,” said Young, now principal of Carpenters Middle.
“Mike just always does the right thing for the kids,” Whitehead said. “It makes decisions much easier.”
“I wanted to do things that had an impact, not just on knowledge, but on experience,” Crabtree said of his time with the TAG program.
Many of the activities are like those today in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) classes, such as building a bridge from straws and masking tape. Crabtree took the lessons further, requiring students to calculate the cost of building the structure and how much weight it could hold per dollar. “It made them think, and they had different philosophies about what would be a winner,” he said.
When they discussed Isaac Newton, they also talked about his personal struggles and what it takes to be successful.
“Teaching is sharing life,” Crabtree said, adding a quote from noted child development expert James Comer: “No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.”
“Life takes place at school,” Crabtree said. “We are more connected in a real way with the community than any other institution.”
“Nobody plays a part in people’s lives like we do,” he said.
While with BCS, Crabtree has led efforts to help teachers and administrators better understand students and families who lack resources.
“One of the legacies that he’ll leave is his ability to reach out and help children in poverty,” Director Rob Britt said of his longtime colleague, who retired last week.
Crabtree explained that behaviors that work for kids to stand up for themselves at home or in their neighborhood can cause situations to escalate in school or the wider world, so he has encouraged educators to embrace difficult situations as teachable moments.
While giving them coats is nice and supporting them through traumas is important, he sees the role of schools in students’ long-term futures.
“The real for mission for us is to educate them to the highest standard possible,” he said. “Because there’s only a few things that get you out of poverty. One is an unusual talent level, a musician or an athlete, but the other is education.”
After retiring last week as assistant director of curriculum and instruction, Crabtree said he was proud to be part of BCS for 32 years.
Educators love the kids and see their work as a mission, not just a paycheck, he said. “We want our communities to be better tomorrow than they are today, and we try really hard to do that.”
As for his choice to retire now, Crabtree said, “There’s nothing left that I would say ‘I want to do that or wish I had done that.’”
“I dressed up as a superhero and rode a motorcycle through the school. I brought a rock concert to a middle school and got to play in the band. I’ve ridden bicycles and skateboards down the hallway. I shot archery, went in and shot bows and arrows with kids, read poetry with them on poetry night,” he said. “I’ve been there to celebrate successes with teachers and kids, been there to hold hands and cry sometimes over losses. I’ve been able to laugh — a lot — worked really hard. I hope I’ve been a model for the culture work hard, but play hard, too.”
He was determined to retire while still young enough to do something else but said he hasn’t decided yet what that will be. “I have been offered a job in the dish room of a couple of lunch rooms,” he said with a smile, adding he knows how to operate the dish machine and has fun doing it.
Britt remembers his first impression of Crabtree as a bright, skillful educator and administrator, “and somebody that I would like to work with.”
They worked together at William Blount High School and Carpenters Middle School before the Central Office. When Crabtree began working in the district it still had K-8 schools, and Crabtree worked with David Cook on moving to the middle school concept. “He did a lot of that legwork,” Britt recalled.
When Britt became principal at Carpenters Middle School, Crabtree was assistant principal and then became principal.
Connecting with the middle school students was one of his greatest strengths. “Middle schoolers are fun because you can mess with them,” Crabtree said with a gleam in his eye.
Although not really a gamer, he played the Halo series when it was popular with his students. During a conversation one day, he told a student, “I am the Master Chief — don’t you forget that.”
And when he became principal and it was time for the pep rally to inspire students before state testing, Crabtree created a costume for that character and rode into the gymnasium on a motorcycle as “Master Chief.”
“He’s in many ways a big kid himself,” Britt said.
While at Carpenters, Crabtree said he realized that upcoming assessments would require such rigorous reading across subjects that students might not be able to show what they know.
Inspired by “The Book Whisperer,” he worked with literacy coach Terri Bradshaw to ensure students would read more.
“That was transformative for us,” he said. “That completely changed the way that we approached literacy at the middle school,” encouraging students to read books they choose.
Bradshaw worked with a student who wanted to read the next book in the Hunger Games series even though it was above his reading level, and charted the progress he made in reading fluency. When they asked why he worked so hard, the boy told them, “I want one day to sit on the edge of the bed with my kids and read to them.”
When Crabtree shared that with the CMS staff, he told them, “It’s not about test scores. ... That’s why we do this.”
“That kicked up a sense of urgency,” he said.
To help stock classroom libraries, Crabtree would visit yard sales and offer to pick up any unsold books. Then he traded them in at McKay’s for books the students could read.
“He’d walk the walk, grabbing a book and sitting in a classroom to read along with students,” Bradshaw recalled. He’d post “What is Mike Crabtree reading now” with a synopsis of the book.
“He changed the culture of the school,” Bradshaw said.
Crabtree continued engaging students in conversations about books even after he became assistant director. When a Union Grove Middle School student said he couldn’t put down a book, Crabtree went right to the book fair and bought it. That eventually led to “Refugee” by Alan Gratz being chosen as the 1READ book for all BCS middle schoolers in 2018, with the author visiting schools and speaking at the public library.
He also embraced research on the importance of content knowledge in reading, which led to the district’s adoption of the Wit and Wisdom curriculum for English language arts, to ensure students are exposed not only to the mechanics of reading but a wide range of topics and vocabulary.
Crabtree led the 1:World initiative, providing a computer for every student in Blount County Schools and training educators to use new tools with a corps of technology teacher leaders.
“I tasked him with taking this use of one device to students and personalizing the learning,” Britt said.
When school buildings closed this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, BCS already had a strong foundation and sent devices home before spring break so online lessons could begin a short time later.
“We see a lot of school systems across the state and nation that are reacting and trying to do what we’ve been doing for the past four or five years,” Britt said.
Crabtree encouraged educators to take on new roles. “He always planted seeds with people,” Whitehead said.
In working with new administrators, he would ask what they were thinking and then say, “Something you might want to consider ….”
When Young became assistant principal at Eagleton and Crabtree was principal at Carpenters, Young said, “I’d reach out to Mike Crabtree and get his advice.”
“He always had a way to make me feel like I could do it,” Young said.
Following Crabtree as principal at Carpenters was like following Pat Summit, he said, referring to the beloved coach of the Lady Vols.
“He went out of his way to know every single kid,” Young said, recalling how Crabtree once found a NASCAR jacket for a student who loved the sport.
As an administrator, Whitehead said she learned from Crabtree the value of relationships. “You have to value people and listen to people, even when it’s hard,” she said. “He makes everybody feel special.”
She knows firsthand that a new administrator will make mistakes, and told Derrick Crabtree one time, “This train has left the station.”
“There’s another train coming tomorrow, so you’d better get ready for it,” she told him, echoing advice Mike once gave her.
When Derrick began teaching at Heritage Middle School, his father helped supply the classroom. That included putting his woodworking skills to work, building something special with a piece of a walnut tree under which family members once gathered for Sunday dinners.
“When you stand behind this podium, I want you to know that the wood from this podium came from the back yard of an illiterate school custodian. That was my grandfather,” Mike Crabtree told his son. “Now you’re a second-generation educator. Be proud of who you are; be proud of where you came from, because that paved the way for me, and it paved the way for you.”