Rachael Ross, who holds a doctorate in literacy, language and culture, has done it all in the world of education. She has been an elementary school teacher, a specialist, a Ph.D. student and a college professor. Now she serves as the Senior Director of Early Literacy Strategy for the Tennessee Department of Education. Ross pioneered the implementation of projects like Reading 360, a program that provides grants and resources to districts, teachers and families intended to help students develop phonetics and reading skills.
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When you reflect on your career so far, which achievement stands out most?
This is a challenging question because I truly believe the best is yet to come. However, as I reflect on my 10-year journey in education, the achievement that stands out the most is earning my Ph.D. from Clemson University. To accomplish this, I had to leave my career as a teacher to dive into my program full-time. The three years I spent learning and researching at Clemson laid the foundation for the future roles I would hold. Becoming Dr. Rachael Ross took sacrifice and dedication, and it instilled in me an unwavering belief that all children deserve an excellent education.
What is the greatest professional obstacle you’ve had to overcome?
Before moving to Knoxville, I was a professor at the University of Memphis. After welcoming our daughter in February 2020, we began thinking deeply about establishing our roots in East Tennessee. Little did we know that four months later in the middle of a pandemic this opportunity would present itself. My husband accepted the boys’ basketball coach position at South-Doyle High School. This meant leaving a position I worked hard to achieve; but a step back personally meant a step forward for my family. This leap of faith ultimately led to my position at the Tennessee Department of Education.
What will you focus on in 2022?
I look forward to developing my leadership skills in 2022. I have been selected to participate in LEAD Tennessee as the representative from the Tennessee Department of Education. LEAD Tennessee provides an opportunity to participate in 12 months of intense, high-impact development in eight leadership core competencies designed to create a pool of leadership talent for the state. I am eager to leverage this opportunity to strengthen my leadership abilities while learning alongside other leaders at the state level.
What is your biggest professional goal?
My biggest professional goal is to always find myself in a role that I am deeply passionate about and in which I utilize my knowledge and skills daily in order to make meaningful change in the educational landscape of Tennessee. I love to be challenged and stretched, and my goal is to always work in an environment where growth and continued learning is encouraged. I am blessed to have this experience in my current role.
What mistake did you learn the most from?
I was a first-year teacher on a team of seasoned educators. As we approached the first day of school, they began giving me the “heads up” about students on my roster. I let their perceptions of one student cloud my mind. I was apprehensive about this student and I struggled developing a relationship with him. As the year progressed, I worked to get to know him to form my own opinion. This led to an incredible friendship where 10 years later, I still call every year on his birthday, Sept. 11. Teachers aren’t supposed to have favorites, but I do.
What motivates you?
My faith, family and passion for high-quality early childhood education
What is the most overrated piece of business advice you’ve heard?
I often heard “the school you go to doesn’t matter, only the degree you receive.” While this may be true for some, I found that the schools I went to for my graduate degrees did, in fact, matter. It was less about the name of the school and more about the faculty I had the opportunity to work with. I have no doubt that my ability to collaborate with notable researchers in the field of education was a catalyst for the trajectory of my career.
What trait do you most want in a co-worker?
It’s important to me that co-workers have unique qualities that add depth and diversity to the team.
What about Knoxville would you like to improve?
In my short time in Knoxville, I have learned about so many organizations doing incredible work in education within our communities. What we see far too often, however, is that there can be a lack of cohesion if the organizations operate in silos. I would like to see opportunities for organizations to come together to share their work, learn from one another, garner support and feedback, and then move the work forward in a more comprehensive way. This could be accomplished in a variety of networking opportunities including a Knoxville conference or exhibition specifically held for organizations with educational initiatives.
Who in Knoxville is underappreciated?
I will never miss the opportunity to elevate and celebrate our educators. Teachers have always been heroes, but through the past three years they have navigated unprecedented challenges. There are not enough words of appreciation to truly honor the incredible work they do. Great is the calling to care for, teach, and love other people’s children.
Family: Ryan Ross, husband; Rosie Ross, daughter
Years worked at current company: 1 year
Degrees and certifications: Ph.D. in literacy, language and culture, Clemson University; Master’s of education in curriculum and instruction, reading specialist, Louisiana State University; Bachelor’s in early childhood education and human Development, Lee University
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
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