by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist
This past week, Missouri’s children lost one of their biggest advocates when Jim Tice, former superintendent of both the Sullivan and Strafford school districts and distance education pioneer, passed away.
Anyone who ever met Jim would have found it hard to forget him. His personality was unique and memorable, but he was also – how can I put this – roundish. In fact, at first look his diameter appeared to almost match his height.
Jim came about his body type naturally. His size didn’t prevent him from being a fast-pitch softball legend in the Springfield area in his earlier years or from living into his mid-70s. Jim always looked younger than his age. “Fat doesn’t wrinkle,” he’d say.
Jim was a regular at the annual educational technology conferences across the state. At each conference, you knew where to find Jim: on the exhibit floor, methodically working each vendor booth. The pattern was the same. Jim would walk up to a booth, pull up a chair and sit down to hear the sales pitch from company X, Y or Z. After learning about the vendor’s offerings, he’d get ready to set the hook.
“It’s great to see such an innovative new product backed by such a forward-thinking company,” Jim might start out. “I just want to know: What can we do to help the children?” At that point, the game was usually over. Jim knew so many kids and so many schools that needed help that when the vendor came back with an answer about how his technology could help the children, Jim had a project for them to get started on. Before they knew it, the vendor had agreed to provide free equipment, to make a donation, to sponsor an event or to make some other commitment to “help the children” gratis.
Not every hook set, but Jim would fish from dawn to dusk.
He also had a love for the type of jargon and phrasing that appeal to administrators and business executives. For years, Jim had been telling me about the incredible results a distance education program that he and his cohorts at Missouri State University had developed using “proximity-based distance learning.” After a phone call from Jim, I decided to take a couple of days to go visit his program.
Well, it turned out that “proximity-based distance education” meant that the instructor got in a car and drove to one of the remote schools so as to be in “proximity” to the remote students from time to time. The success came by the fact that building a teacher-student relationship is hard to do when just communicating with technology. One or two face-to-face interactions can be enough to establish a deeper relationship that can then be continued throughout a distance education course.
Although I was a little disappointed in the “proximity-based” technology I observed (a white Ford Escort), the program that he and others had built was impressive. By approaching distance education with the question in mind “What can we do to help the children?” Jim and his colleagues built a program that was successful by all measures: test scores, retention rates, future student success, diversification of local curriculum, etc. It continues to this day as the successful Missouri Virtual School at Missouri State University (mvs.missouristate.edu). Many other programs that approached distance education with the question “How do we cut costs”? are long gone or are on their way out because they didn’t end up helping the children.
Jim knew the right question to ask when it came to educational technology.
When not fishing at conferences, Jim was organizing and conducting his monthly Distance Learning Initiative Policy Committee meetings in Jefferson City as part of the Missouri Rural Development Consortium. At each meeting, Jim brought together distance learning professionals, vendors, state administrators and legislators and essentially asked them, “What can we do for the children?”
These meetings served as a catalyst for many new projects and initiatives. Some of them were very successful, and some were not. Like any catalyst, Jim didn’t always have control of the reactions once they got started. And once away from Jim’s presence, people often forgot to ask how their project was helping the children.
Jim’s openness to considering all options and alternatives at these meetings sometimes irritated me, and I often told him so. I wanted him to use his influence to choose specific options and press hard on those instead of encouraging all points of view. Not every point of view is valid, I would argue. He always listened carefully to my complaints, but I was arguing for Jim to be somebody he wasn’t. I just don’t think he could stand to cut off any option that might help the children he loved and for whom he worked so hard.
Those of us who knew Jim will miss him dearly. But we can take solace in the fact that somewhere in the great beyond, Jim is pulling up a chair next to some angel or saint and simply asking them, “What can we do to help the children?”
A question we should all ask.