A former student comes back to his old school, this time as a teacher, and gets the worst class. A comedy? Only on TV. How Richard Carter turned these students around will amaze you.
When newly hired teacher Richard Carter walked back into his old high school, he soon realized a very important fact had been omitted during his job interview.
“The kids had beat up the last two instructors that they had,” he says.
It was January 1987, and the principal told him why the masonry class was without a teacher in mid-year. The first instructor left with a scar from having chunks of block thrown at him. Later, one of the students freely admitted why the second teacher quit in the fall.
“The one guy was bragging to me, ‘Man, I hit him down behind the blocks and I was wailing on him,’” Carter recalls. “And of course they were locked up, they were arrested, but they literally beat up the first two teachers they had. The principal told me that after he had got me in there and I had signed the contract.”
So there Carter was, back at Polytech High School in Woodside, Del., where he’d been class president and a SkillsUSA (then VICA) member 16 years earlier. After graduating in 1971, he rose through the ranks as a brick salesman to working with builders and architects. “I had given up my nice job with the company car, expense account and things,” Carter says, to work with students known as “the animals out back.” They’d been booted from the school to a building behind it.
The new teacher’s first request was that the class be moved back into the school. “[The principal] gave me the keys. He said, ‘I don’t care if you’re gonna teach masonry for the rest of the year, just make it through the end of the year.’ And when a principal tells you that, there’s something going on.”
Much has gone on in the 18 years since Carter took the job. A few months ago, SkillsUSA named him national advisor of the year. Earlier this year, he spoke to his state senate and the governor proclaimed “Richard Carter Day.” And for 14 consecutive years, Carter’s SkillsUSA members have won a state leadership trophy for placing in every contest they’ve entered. It’s a far cry from “the animals out back.”
He’d been hired as “the biggest, meanest rascal they could find” or at least that’s what the principal told the masonry students, Carter says.
“He told them I was [a veteran] from Vietnam and I knew karate and all this to try to scare them.” But the new teacher leveled with the class. “I told them about the opportunities I had as a brick salesman, and how I’d worked my way up and how I used to go to this school.”
It was a rocky start, to put it mildly, even for a man as large as Carter. “Two people were arrested out of my class, the first month I was there, for murder,” he says. “One guy had beat someone to death with a baseball bat, and this one guy was the same size as me. He walked up one of my students and put his chin on my shoulder and came around and grabbed me from behind, and he said, ‘We’re gonna “eff” you up like we did the last teacher.’ And I said, ‘No you’re not.’
“… He told me a couple of days later, ‘I’m gonna bring my .32 and shoot you.’ I didn’t know these kids were like this or this mad, and I said, ‘You’d better bring more than one bullet, ’cause one bullet ticks me off’ in a joking way, you know. Well, two days later he shot a person over a drug deal.” The student was arrested right in class, “and I’m like, ‘Good Lord!’”
Understandably, Carter yearned for his younger, happier days. “I remembered what I was doing when I was in school there,” he says, which got him started using SkillsUSA leadership events to see what it would do for these students. “And these kids had nothing.” He spent his first paycheck on shirts and ties so they could participate in contests. Amazingly, with only a few months left in the school year, his students won in Prepared Speech as well as Masonry.
The next year was even better. “We were like a big family,” he remembers. “I showed them leadership, manners. The cafeteria ladies told us, ‘Your kids have the best manners of anyone in this school; I just can’t believe how they’ve turned around.’ And I was using leadership events and things of that nature to get them turned around.”
After he had winners go to the SkillsUSA national competition, there were “kids from all over the school coming back to the masonry class,” Carter says. “I had half the cosmetology class. As far as the Opening and Closing Ceremonies team, there are seven members on a team, and I had four girls and three of my masonry guys.” Still, his students were a little rough around the edges. “You had to teach the masonry guys not to curse.”
One student, he remembers, “cursed every other word. I had got him to quit cursing and to go up there. He threw up three times before the state contest because he said he was so nervous.”
The big man wells up as he recounts his students’ hardships. The twin boys from a broken home: “Everything that we did, they were the first ones there. And they still have the black tie I bought them and the white shirt. They said they still keep that as a souvenir, ‘for when you helped us out, Mr. Carter.’” And the wide-eyed girl whom he asked, when crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge out of Delaware, “You’ve never been over this bridge before?”
“And she said, ‘No, I’ve never been over any bridge.’ She was a senior in high school and had never been out of her hometown.”
Five years into teaching, Carter was asked to be the school’s student activities director. Now when he’s asked what his job duties are, he answers, “‘All of the above,’ because I do the assemblies, pep rallies, dances, homecoming, graduation and the senior trip to Disney World every year. … and then train the [SkillsUSA] kids for states and get them ready for the contests and help set up the state contest through the state office.”
Today, he may be more likely to encounter resistance from fellow teachers than from the students as in each September, when he goes into different classrooms to talk about SkillsUSA. “I went into [a teacher’s] class and he said, ‘We don’t want you to talk in here, because I’ve asked the kids and no one’s interested.’ And there are 70 kids in that class,” Carter points out.
“So I said, ‘Well, if you will give me just a few minutes and let me do the presentation, just let me have that much of your class time, then if they’re not interested, we’ll be OK.’” Carter showed the students SkillsUSA’s video of the national conference, “and they said, ‘Wow!’ I showed them all the thrill that they can get out of this and what they have to do to get there. When I walked out, all 70 of them signed up for contests.
“The teacher told me, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this in my life, because I told you I didn’t want you to come in here.’ And I said, ‘Well, you have to come across excited about it, because you have to be excited about it to get them excited about it. They know when you’re fake. They know if you’re just talking to them,” he demonstrates, slipping into a bored tone, “‘Oh yeah, we have this.’ But if you’re excited about it I mean, when I watch the national video, I get tears in my eyes.”
Last year, when a cooperative education position became available at the school, Carter had already told the administration he’d like to be considered. But, he adds, “I had so many teachers at my school come to me and say, ‘Don’t quit. If you do, then I’m not going to do SkillsUSA.’ And so I gave up the interview and I’m not going to do it. I’m staying where I am because I like this too much and love what I’m doing.”
This man with the commanding presence, who turned around the toughest class imaginable, prefaces this with the comment, “Excuse me, I might get emotional here.” And then he launches into another recent accomplishment that makes him especially proud.
“I’ve gone from me being a student at my school to my daughter being a student at this school and her winning first place and coming to nationals.” She competed in the Community Service presentation.
“I say, ‘If I died today, I’d be a happy man.’” He sighs. “It’s been a great year.”
SkillsUSA Champions | Fall 2005 | Volume 40, No. 1