How one teacher helped a poverty-stricken student overcome obstacles to eventually become a school superintendent in a neighboring district

When we first had the idea to start the Inspired2Educate recognition program, we weren't quite sure what to expect. Asking educators from around the country to share their stories with us about the person who inspired them was something we had never done before, even though we've partnered with educators for over 15 years.

Would educators really share their stories with us? How personal would the stories be? Could those stories, in turn, inspire others?

What we got with Inspired2Educate were some of the most touching and honest stories that I, and our staff at PeopleAdmin, have ever read. Stories of overcoming odds. Stories of courage and caring. Stories of hope. But most importantly, stories that prove just how impactful the actions of one educator can be on a student for a lifetime.

The story we chose as the first winner of our program belongs to Dr. Kenneth Border, a Superintendent in Shallowater, Texas. Growing up in poverty with a mother who was ill, and a father who died, Dr. Border grappled with homelessness and, from a young age, worried that he would never be able to overcome the odds stacked against him. But his high school English teacher, Mrs. Sharon Spears, believed in him, challenged him to rise to his full potential, and helped him apply to college. He credits her with helping him become the first in his family to attend and graduate from college. Today, he is a school superintendent in a neighboring community and works to inspire his young students, just as Mrs. Spears did for him.

We were lucky enough to speak with Dr. Border about his experience and learn more about why he choose to share his story. You can read the full text here.

How did you hear about the Inspired2Educate program and why did you decide to submit your story?

I saw it on the computer. And I just love education. I love what education has done for me. I love the people that I have interacted with through education. And if we don't tell our story, someone else will. And the only way that you can assure accuracy in your story is if you're telling it yourself.

You talk about how Mrs. Spears helped you overcome the "mold" of poverty and circumstances that were holding you back. Do you remember at the time if you had ever considered going to college?

No, I really hadn't. I was a kiddo whose parents were divorced at 5. I lived with my mom until I was 11, and then moved in with my dad. My dad passed away the summer when I was 12, and I moved back in with my mother. And then, my mother had leukemia so she didn't do well. My mom didn't make a living wage and when my dad passed away, everything went to the state. And my mom had no skills and no trades, so she was 50 years old having to go back to work.

She went to work at different places and made money, but it wasn't enough to live. I remember on days off we would use the restroom until it filled up and then we'd take a pot and go dump it out in the backyard. I remember sitting in the living room and our ceiling kept caving in because our roof was in such bad shape. I remember many nights of going and stealing ketchup from the 7-Eleven just so that I could have ketchup with fried potatoes. I guess potatoes were pretty cheap back then.

I was a free lunch kid who would eat breakfast and lunch at school and then might not get another meal until breakfast the next morning at school. And then on March 10th of 1989, I was 15 years old and moved out of my house. Probably the smartest thing I did in that whole mix was still manage to go to school. And then not long after that, I ran into Mrs. Spears. She was my senior year English teacher. And Sharon saw something in me that I didn't see in myself.

Can you tell us about your first impressions of Mrs. Spears and a bit more about how she inspired you to go to college?

I don't necessarily remember the first moment I met her. But I could tell right away that she set the bar high. And she had very high expectations. She wouldn't accept my poverty excuses as to why I couldn't do work. And throughout school, I goofed off because I could use my life situation as an excuse. And she wasn't accepting of that. But at the same time, she helped me work through it.

I'm sitting there as a 17-, 18-year-old kid, and here's this lady telling me, "No, you're going to do your research paper." And I'd tell her, "Well, I don't have no cards." "Well, guess what? I do." And I tried to use the poverty excuse. And the poverty excuse didn't work with her. And I'd butt heads with her. I'm not going to ever say that it was just a field of flowers. At times, we were in the thorns.

But she helped me fill out college applications. She helped me fill out my FAFSA. She helped me get into Odessa College. I lived in Odessa at the time and graduated from Permian High School. And I didn't know what Odessa College was. I didn't know what University of Texas Permian Basin was.

The determination on her part to continue telling me I was smart enough and I was good enough to go to college was amazing. She didn't want to let me waste my own resources. Because she knew I was good enough to go to college, even though I didn't.

What was one thing Mrs. Spears did in her classroom that you feel you've carried over into your own position?

One of them is caring about my students and the other, I would say, is having high expectations about caring. And what I mean by that is, I live by the three R's as it relates to education in our schools: relationships, relevance, and rigor. So it goes in order, relationships, relevance, and then rigor. You can't have relevance if you don't have relationships, and you can't have rigor if you don't have relevance. Something won't be relevant to the students unless you have the relationships with your students. And you won't know what's relevant to your kids unless you have that relationship with them. And then it doesn't matter how rigorous it is if it's not relevant to the kids.

And if you put the three together, then I think you end up with a pretty outstanding school district. You end up with some pretty amazing results out of some pretty awesome kids.

In your story, you talk about how Mrs. Spears made you want to become a teacher. Was there a specific time you can remember that really cemented that idea for you?

I think it was a building of moments. But Mrs. Spears was really a life teacher for me. She taught me that I had value and worth. She taught me that I wasn't stupid and that I had the potential to go to college.

She also created within me a sense of responsibility toward her. I didn't want to disappoint her and as a result, I began seeing myself doing something with my life beyond a high school diploma. She helped me turn in college applications, take the ACT, and submit financial aid information.

Needless to say, I became a college student despite the fact that my mother passed away two weeks before I started this venture. And 24 years later, I have a bachelor's degree in English, a master's degree in Education Administration, and a doctorate degree in Education Administration (K-12).

But my greatest achievement is my own family. My wife, who is a stay at home mother, which is the toughest of all jobs, my two young children, and I all have benefitted from one lady, Sharon Spears, believing in me and showing me what I could and can accomplish.

As you well know, a lot states are experiencing teacher and administrator shortages right now. What would you say to encourage a young person considering a career in education?

If I were at the crossroads having to decide between going into education or looking into another field, I would encourage people to go to their local school districts, visit their local classrooms, and see the possibility of the impact. Because I've been in education now for 20 years, yet my impact -- hopefully my positive impact on education -- goes way beyond the 20 years I've taught. And what I mean by that is, if I make a positive impact on one student's life and then that student gets married and has children, and their children, and then their children, and then their children... Hopefully, it's just a never-ending amount of impact that you can have on the lives of children.

The great thing about education is that it doesn't know race, it doesn't know ethnicity, it doesn't know socioeconomic status, it doesn't know any of those things. But it's something that will allow you to overcome all of those things.

It's a great profession to be in. I truly believe that education is the sole means for breaking down barriers. I'm a first-generation college student, but I'm also a first-generation college graduate. I wouldn't be sitting where I am today without education.

It's educators like Dr. Border and Mrs. Spears, and their stories that continually inspire me in the work we do here at PeopleAdmin. We are honored to work with schools, school districts, colleges, and universities across the country to match excellent educators like them with schools where their light can shine brightest.

Kermit S. Randa is chief executive officer of PeopleAdmin, the leader in cloud-based talent management solutions for education and government. He has 20 years of executive experience leading firms in the software industry.