The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Sunday Profile

August 5, 2012

Know the child

Dwight Dials put kids at heart of decisions

Over a nearly 50- year career, Dwight Dials, a former superintendent of Fayette, Raleigh and Mingo county schools, has seen a lot of change in the educational system.

From attending grammar school in a one-room schoolhouse to working as an administrator across the state, from the Eastern Panhandle to the coal fields, Dials has a diverse perspective.

Regardless of how many changes he has seen — the elimination of the paddle, the implementation of No Child Left Behind, the closing of schools, the building of schools and the rise of a curriculum to compete in a global society — he still feels connected as an educator when he runs into one of “my kids.”

From St. Mary’s Medical Center in Huntington to teachers at Liberty High School, Dials said he sees students who are grown and have school-age children of their own.

“When one of them comes up to me to talk, it is like getting a paycheck. There is no better feeling than that recognition,” he said.

And often, he explained, it is students who were the most trouble who remember him with the most appreciation.

Dials, who started out the son of a coal miner and auto mechanic in Mingo County, always loved school. His family moved about 14 times before he finished his education, moving to many places he would later work as an administrator or teacher. Dials graduated from St. Albans High School when he was 16 and from college at age 20.

He started teaching as a young man at Hayes Junior High in Kanawha County in 1965 and then returned five years after his graduation to be a vice principal at St. Albans.

“I had the honor to go back to the school I graduated from. At that time there were about 20 teachers that had had me in school — so they knew all about me. I wouldn’t say that I was a trouble maker, but I was adventurous, like Tom Sawyer,” he joked.

Dials describes the high school during his tenure as having a great mix of diversity and a great atmosphere, with exceptional athletics.

There were about 1,760 kids attending the school then, he said.

“Everywhere I have been, I have seen another set of personalities. But everywhere I have felt like I was part of a community and was able to stay young through the kids. They make you feel like you are part of their generation and you can stay connected if you engage them in conversation and get to know them,” he said.

Dials then became the vocational schools director for Pleasants County in 1973, signing on for the job before the Mid Ohio Valley Technical Institute existed, and worked to create the vo-tech option and recruit students from five feeder high schools.

“I developed a great interest in vocational education. It is a chance to work on the head and hands of young people. Young people need to be productive and some will use the knowledge they acquire to go into the workforce or pursue further training. Everyone has their own set of skills and abilities; we want them to be productive with them,” Dials shared.

Dials then moved to the Fayette County School District as a vocational director and became associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction.

He remembers his first stint in Fayette County at a time when educators were friends with each other.

Teachers and principals would vacation their families at the beach with each other. Groups of teachers sang together in their spare time and your co-workers were your friends, he recalled.

“I have seen education evolve from a family of educators to an environment where people will sit beside of each other in a room or at a water fountain and then send each other an e-mail instead of talking. It is hard for me to accept that. I like to look people in the eye when I talk to them,” he said.

“It was also a time when teachers were allowed more autonomy than they have now. It seems people got along better when they were collaborating and being creative with their curriculum. And had more freedom to do that,” Dials continued. “Today all teachers have the same recipe, the same script. But it is not in the recipe. Two cooks can follow the same recipe and come out with two different results. It is in the sixth sense, the situational awareness and the adaptability and sensitivity of the teacher that makes success.”

Dials left Fayette County to be superintendent in Morgan County in 1981 and found, yet again, a different culture just 100 miles from Washington, D.C.

“I was superintendent there eight years and we took the politics out of it. Board members worked as team players and made changes that needed to be made and balanced the books,” he said.

From there Dials came to serve as superintendent of Raleigh County from 1989 until 2001 and was met with a teacher’s strike in 1990 and a retirement incentive that left him replacing 10 principals and a slew of central office staff.

After raising two children in Kanawha County and two in Fayette — and feeling old, he joked — Dials said he decided to retire from the public sector to work as an education consultant.

But retirement lasted only a short time and he went home to Mingo County, this time as a state-appointed superintendent.

While there he closed several schools and built a new high school, he said.

“Williamson was a challenge but it was a labor of love. I had gone to school, learned to swim, played ball and was a paper boy there. I was living in an apartment one block from where I ran the streets as a little boy. To be a superintendent there made me feel proud and humble. I felt like I was living a dream,” Dials shared.

Dials said he was met with opposition there, but no one ever got mad at him, he claimed.

“I can deal with opposition. We hugged each other’s necks and have since then. But there was opposition,” he said.

After four years in Mingo, Dials became the state-appointed superintendent in Fayette County, although the district had changed substantially since his first time there.

The number of students in the county, for instance, had dropped by 50 percent, he said.

“But it was like a return home. I had a 42 acre farm when I lived there before and I raised my children there,” he said.

Looking back over his career, the educator said, “Often the greatest evidence of our success is our students. But our students can also be evidence of our failure. I don’t always feel successful. I look back and know at times I was not able to change the dropout rate as I should or was not able to challenge students to a higher order of thinking and performance.”

However he remains firm in his pedagogical beliefs: “Education has to be purposeful and we have to take all students to another level of learning, not just those who are ready, willing and able. West Virginia has a lot of poverty, but I don’t view a student’s socio-economics as an excuse for not performing well. Lack of income does not, and should not, reflect parents’ and teachers’ expectations of our children.

“My job has not always been fulfilling. But is it always fulfilling when you engage the student, get to know them, get to know their family, and know you have made a difference. You know you matter,” shared Dials. “Now we use a lot of jargon about individualizing education and differentiated instruction, but very often we don’t know the child. When you know the child, good educators automatically know how to reach them.”

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