A native of Williamsburg, Va., Michael Rodgers moved to East Tennessee to study music at Knoxville College. After graduating, he earned a master’s degree at the University of Tennessee and then worked as a teaching assistant at Beaumont Elementary, while honing a musical career on the side.
As a vocalist with the Knoxville Opera and Marble City Opera, Rodgers has performed the roles of Monterone in “Rigoletto,” The Mandarin in “Turandot,” The Imperial Commissioner in “Madame Butterfly,” Gregorio in “Romeo et Juliette,” and Antonio in “The Marriage of Figaro.” He also is a featured soloist at Cokesbury United Methodist Church.
Rodgers has been a special-education teacher at Maynard Elementary since 1998. In recent years, he has split time between Maynard and South Knoxville Elementary, where he teaches in the mornings. In this installment of “Classroom Q-and-A,” he talks about the teacher who helped recognize his musical gifts; about serving as a role model for African-American boys; and about what he’s learned from 25 years in the classroom.
Hall Pass: How did you know you wanted to be a singer?
Michael Rodgers: I’ve been singing for a while, ever since I was in elementary school. I had one teacher who said, ‘You really have a nice voice; you should join the choir.’ And I joined the choir and have been singing since then.
Hall Pass: Who was the teacher?
Rodgers: Her name was Ms. Richardson. I was in the fourth grade in Virginia, at Magruder Elementary School.
Hall Pass: What was it like the first time you sang in the choir; was it an immediate recognition that this is something I want to do?
Rodgers: Oh, yeah. My family’s musical. But they didn’t pursue it in the area I did, becoming classically trained and those kinds of things. We’d sing around the house, we’d sing in the church choir, but nobody pursued it as a career.
Hall Pass: Do you have a favorite role?
Rodgers: A role that I would really like to try would be Scarpia, from “Tosca.” He’s a villainous character from that opera … a bad character, if you will. But just really good music, really good singing.
Hall Pass: How did you make the transition into education?
Rodgers: Actually, there was a friend of mine, she worked with Title I. And there was a program that would allow teachers to obtain their certification, licensure, and also teach at the same time, like an internship.
And she called me one day and she said, ‘Mike, we have this program, I really think that you would benefit from being in it and would you consider it?’ And I said, ‘Well, sure.’ I was actually a TA for four years before the program came about.
Hall Pass: What has it been like to serve at Maynard for so long and what has kept you here, because you obviously love it?
Rodgers: When I started here, the principal that was at Beaumont actually transferred here (to Maynard), and I loved working under her. She seemed to have a vision, and I wanted to particularly stay in the inner-city area.
I thought a lot of our kids that were here at that time didn’t get to see a positive male role model, an African-American positive male role model. So I think that, along with grace, brought me here.
I think it was something that was divinely orchestrated for me to be here. Because I could have been anywhere, could have chosen to go anywhere at that time, because there weren’t a lot of African-American males in the system really at all. But I thought I was giving back to the community.
Hall Pass: As you are in the halls and in the classroom every day here, what is the impact you see from giving students an African-American male role model; how does that affect their lives?
Rodgers: I think it’s huge. The reason why is because I don’t think they always get to see that positive aspect, that positive influence every day. I have kids, they’ll be sitting and maybe writing something, and then they’ll say, ‘Hey, Dad.’ Because they don’t get to say that, or they don’t have that at home that often.
I’m firm; I’m really structured when it comes to the kids, but they also know there’s a human side of me as well, and I try to show that to them sometimes. And I think they appreciate that.
Hall Pass: How do you balance those two things, the expectations and firmness but also the care and the human side?
Rodgers: It’s a hard challenge. I think being intentional about some of the things I say to them. Letting them know that life is hard. That’s probably more of the stern side of me. Life is hard and you’re going to have to get over some of your hang-ups in order to make it in life.
I’m just a realist. I kind of give it to them how life is going to be, or how I’ve seen life. And some of the pitfalls you can find yourself in if you don’t go in the right direction or if you don’t do things correctly.
Hall Pass: What are the particular challenges of special education?
Rodgers: Sometimes when I look at the expectations that other people have of kids with disabilities. Sometimes I know they can do more than what people expect. And we think sometimes because they have a disability that our expectations have to be lowered, and I don’t agree with that. I know each and every one of the students in this classroom, and I know their capabilities.
Hall Pass: If you could go back 20 years, 15 years, 10 years and talk to yourself back then, what advice would you give?
Rodgers: (Laughs) Don’t sweat the small stuff. Really. I have sometimes not slept, worrying about things that I had no control over. And I found myself worrying about those things, staying up at night worrying about, ‘How is this going to get done?’ I mean, it gets done. Somehow it gets done.
Hall Pass: Tell me about a student who’s been memorable in your career?
Rodgers: Several years ago, there was a young man and he really didn’t like to do much when he came here. He wasn’t a motivated student. And I tried my best while he was here to kind of show him the importance or tell him the importance of studying and sticking to something.
And after they leave here sometimes I see them, sometimes I won’t. Well one day in particular I was on Facebook and he instant messaged me, and he thanked me for everything that I’d done for him in elementary school and told me that if it was not for what I told him and tried to instill in him, that he would not have gone on to community college.
And I think that made me understand that I am making an impact. And it may just be one or two kids, but at least I’ve impacted someone. Some family. And I think that’s worth it.
Josh Flory is a multi-media specialist with Knox County Schools and writes this blog, Hall Pass, for the KCS website. This entry was originally posted April 2, 2019.