Gale “Hap” Hairston has the confidence of someone who has accomplished a lot in his lifetime. For 27 years he has been, at different times, a teacher, a principal and a football coach. Now, as director of educator preparation for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Hairston works to make sure new schoolteachers are better prepared to teach students in a rapidly changing world.
Hairston is running in the April 8 election for one of three seats on the Columbia School Board.
“My 37 years in education and community activities have given me the opportunity to learn, to teach, to lead, to listen, to teach teachers and coordinate educator preparation programs in Missouri,” Hairston said. “It is time for me to give back.”
He said the appeal of working in education is the eagerness of children to learn. Whenever he is having a hard day, he walks into a kindergarten classroom. “Watching the energy level of kids getting off the school bus and always having to tell them to walk shows their excitement about learning,” he said. “The world is wide open to them. They’re ready to learn.”
Sitting comfortably in a brown leather recliner in his home basement office, Hairston exudes the calm of someone who just finished a couple hours of yoga. Behind him on a bookshelf are various college sports teams’ paraphernalia: footballs and sports trinkets placed carefully among small gifts from former students. It’s the only shelf above Hairston’s desk not loaded with books or framed family portraits.
His wife, Carolyn, recently retired after teaching for 28 years. “Our personal and professional involvement in education has been one of the cornerstones of our 33 years of marriage,” Hairston said. The couple has two sons, one of whom works in education and another who works with the MU Tigers football team.
Hairston feels well-versed in the issues facing Columbia Public Schools today and thinks funding is at the top of the list. Public schools are working at a time when federal and state dollars are decreasing, he said, and budgets must be built on steady streams of income. The downturn in the economy, rising utility and transportation costs and unfunded mandates such as those related to meeting the federal No Child Left Behind Act negatively affect the budget, he said.
Hairston said the board will need to make some tough decisions. “My experiences, bad and good, will help with that process,” he said.
Columbia must continue to foster and improve the working relationship between the city and county government as well as work with economic developers to bring new employers to Columbia without sacrificing tax revenues, he said.
“It is everyone’s” — meaning school board members’ — “responsibility to maximize and communicate the use of all resources,” Hairston said. “The board needs to be very careful and open and explain what money is coming in and how it is used.”
He supports the proposed 54 cent property tax levy increase. “The bottom line is if we are going to succeed as a community, one of the most important things we can do is have strong public schools,” Hairston said.
Curriculum, in his view, is the second biggest issue in Columbia public schools. Hairston said schools should prepare students for life in the 21st century and try different teaching methods until “we learn what works well for kids.” He said every child learns differently and the curriculum should be changed until it accommodates the child. “We need to keep building and keep learning,” he said.
Above his desk in his Jefferson City office are two framed quotes by Ron Edmonds. One of them reads: “All children can learn.” The other says: “We know what to do to teach every child; our success depends upon our commitment to do that.” Hairston’s job now is to figure out the specific ways to teach every child and to set up a curriculum that caters to each child’s needs.
Tom Schlimpert, supervisor at The Leadership Academy in Jefferson City who carpools with Hairston, supports electing Hairston to the board. “If you don’t have good leaders, nothing is going to happen,” Schlimpert said. “He knows education.”
Recently Hairston and Schlimpert went on a three-day trip to St. Louis to review a teacher education program at Fontbonne University. Schlimpert said that in an intense 14-hour work environment, Hairston kept his colleagues loose. “He’s not uptight,” Schlimpert said.
Rhonda Ball, secretary to the principal at Rock Bridge Elementary School, recalled Hairston as really likeable. “He’s certainly got the background and the knowledge to be on the school board,” Ball said.
At home, Carolyn Hairston said she is the one who works on the house and “fixes things.” She admires her husband’s approach to getting things done. His attitude, she said, is “You know it has to be done, so you might as well do it and get it over with.”
Schlimpert agreed, saying, “He knows how to get from point A to point B.”
Click here to read Gail Hairston's response to a questionnaire from the
Columbia Community Teachers Association.