Dateline – last day of school before Christmas, Allen Landers’ third-grade classroom, Sarah Moore Greene Magnet Academy:
Teddy bears and dolls and puzzles and coloring books and basketballs and assorted toys sit in colorful rows and heaps and glittering piles in Mr. Landers’ Christmas Store (AKA his third-grade classroom). They are available for purchase by any of his students with the wherewithal to pay for them. Nobody pays cash, which is a good thing, since hardly anybody has much of that, anyhow.
What they do have is an innovative, enthusiastic teacher with boundless love for his students, which is why Landers is my choice for Person of the Year for 2021. He’s an outstanding example of Knox County’s many dedicated public-school teachers who have been faced with difficult challenges over the past couple of years as they’ve worked to help their students get through the pandemic, whatever the obstacles thrown in their way.
These SMG third graders are itching to spend their varying-sized wads of Behavior Money – brightly colored bills in denominations of $1 to $50 printed with pictures of Mr. Landers’ dogs – redeemable only in The Christmas Store, which is open for business the last day of class before the holidays. It’s a day that Landers’ students look forward to and work toward all semester long – and so does the teacher.
“The number of kids who want to buy stuff for their mom or their baby brother just rips your heart out. Some of these kids are tough, street-hardened beyond their years, but when they say, ‘I want to get that teddy bear for my baby sister…’ you think ‘Wow.’
“There’s always one kid that buys more than anyone else. He had a wad of money about an inch thick and said, ‘I think I’ll just save it.’ I told him, ‘Look, there’s nothing else to save it for. This is the last day.’
“But when we go back in January, I’ll start it again and we’ll have a Last Day of School Store.”
It’s been a tough couple of years for the kids, as well as for their teachers. It hasn’t been easy for anybody, but it’s a little harder for kids who depend on school lunches to stave off hunger and who may not have access to internet connections or home computers or parents with the time to supervise home schooling.
But what they do have is an innovative, enthusiastic teacher with boundless love for his students.
Enthusiasm is smack dab in the middle of Landers’ wheelhouse. When he was an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee, he was a cheerleader who wore a furry Smokey the mascot suit. Even before that, the Memphis native spent part of his childhood in Knoxville when his father, Dr. Bill Landers, was in graduate school and assisting the baseball coach here, and Landers decided way back then that he wanted to live in Big Orange Country, a dream he never forgot during the 20 years he spent in the Navy after graduation, or during the eight years he spent teaching in Savannah.
And it was in Savannah that he picked up the idea of rewarding good behavior from a female colleague who went on to become a principal.
The question begged by the pile of Christmas loot is who pays?
The answer is Landers himself. He starts hitting up the toy aisles on Black Friday weekend and buys carloads of merchandise. Frequently, store managers catch on to what he’s doing and help him out with extra bargains.
The second question is, how does he pay for it?
“It’s called being a retired veteran,” he said. “People have asked me to let them chip in, but this is something I do for my kids.”
The school itself has a program to reward positive behavior, but Landers’ Christmas store and money awards are his own.
Landers had to fight for this job, and it means everything to him. He ran afoul of the administration at the first school to which he was assigned and was told that he wouldn’t be rehired to teach in Knox County. He accepted a position as a teaching assistant at a much lower salary and managed to catch the eye of former SMG principal Amy Brace, who fought to help him get back into a classroom.
It took three years, but now he’s back where he was meant to be – in a classroom, making a difference in kids’ lives.
Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com. Each year she names a Person of the Year.