In the first video episode of the podcast, Chief of Educational Access DeWayne Street invited Superintendent Bruce Gearing, Ed.D., to speak about the Culture of Voting in Leander ISD and the state of public education.

Don’t forget! Early voting ends Friday, March 1, and then Election Day is Tuesday, March 5.

This On the Street: A #1LISD Journey podcast series serves as an opportunity to continue the conversation around educational access and to highlight our efforts around increasing cultural competency for Leander ISD staff. Our work is about bringing people into the conversation.

Episode 5 – A Culture of Voting & the State of Public Education with Bruce Gearing

DeWayne starts by asking Bruce to share a little bit about Bruce’s passion for public education and where that journey began (00:40). Later, DeWayne and Bruce have a conversation centered around:

  • What was the impact of Gearing’s favorite teacher? (05:12)
  • Supporting a Culture of Voting (07:28)
  • What is public education’s value in the 21st century? (11:46)
  • The challenges facing public education (18:54)
  • The future of public education (23:05)
  • Key takeaways from Gearing’s time as an educator (27:34)
  • Closing on a Culture of Voting (29:41)

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Below, you will find a transcript of the episode.


DeWayne Street
Hello, friends. My name is DeWayne Street, and I’m the Chief for the office of Educational Access. And I’m here today with Dr. Bruce Gearing, Superintendent for LISD. We are here to discuss cultivating a culture of voting to support the future of public education in our state. As many of you know, we’re in an election season, and we will have the responsibility to share our voices through the ballot box.

Dr. Gearing, thank you so much for having this conversation with me today.

Bruce Gearing
It’s great to be here, DeWayne.

It’s awesome to have you. So should we just dive right in? 

Let’s do it. 

About Gearing’s passion for public education

All right. So, Dr. Gearing, I think it’s important for people to learn a little bit about you and your passion for public education, what drives you. And so I want to go back to the beginning. Please tell us about your journey in public education, focusing on where did you start? What first drew you to the profession and why did you choose to make this your life’s work? 

Thanks, DeWayne. It’s really exciting to be here today. My first experience in education was in Soweto, the black township outside of Johannesburg – about a million people living really in destitute poverty. And I taught in a high school there. I couldn’t live in there, so I was commuting in and out of Soweto 

Because of apartheid.

Because of apartheid. And so it was a really unique experience. But serving students who really came from abject poverty, the thing that struck me was an experience I had fairly near the beginning of that first year teaching in that setting. And I was teaching the school leaving class. And so they were getting ready for their final exam. In South Africa, they just had one exam, that’s a school leaving exam. And that was what qualifies you to do whatever it is in your next step. And so there’s a lot of pressure on students in that one moment, that one day.

And I said to them, well, I said, “Well, I’ll come in on Saturday and we can do some extra tutorials.” And I thought, you know, maybe four or five kids would show up. And so I arrived and all 40 of my kids were sitting in their uniforms in the classroom before I ever got there, ready to go.

On a Saturday.

On a Saturday morning. And what I realized is that they knew that their ticket to get out of that situation was education. And they knew that. And they were prepared to put in whatever it took to buy that ticket out of that situation. And by the end of the year, we had 100% of those kids pass that exam and give them the ability to to take that next step.

Now, that doesn’t mean that all of them would have been successful. I understand that. But education is that ticket to what’s happening next. I’ve taught three years in inner city schools in London, and I found out the exact same thing. It doesn’t matter what culture you’re from, it doesn’t matter what background you’re from. If you understand that education is your ticket to freedom, then you’ll be prepared to put in what it takes to own that yourself and to do what it takes to get out of that situation that you’re in. 

And I got to the States in ‘98 and discovered very quickly that, guess what? There’s a different set of issues in a first-world country. But the philosophy is the same: if you want to be able to create opportunity for yourself, then you have to have a good education. And it has to come from you. It cannot come from somebody else. 

That’s been my journey through public education in Texas, and I’ve been in Texas the whole time since 1998. And I’ve been a teacher, I’ve been an assistant principal, I’ve been a principal, I’ve been a central office administrator and now superintendent for 15 years. And it’s been a beautiful journey because I’ve had the opportunity to watch families and kids in particular make that choice of: “I want to create opportunity for myself. And when I get a good education, when I put in the effort in my learning, then that is what can happen.” 

You know, I completely agree. I think about working, I worked in Beloit, Wisconsin, which was a hyper marginalized community. And so a lot of similarities there. Education can transform the individual, which by extension can transform families.

And I think it’s so important that people recognize the power of it. I know a lot of people sometimes, you know, we take access for granted. It’s only when you don’t have it, you truly appreciate it and you work with individuals who did not have it, but they were craving that.

And then you said something else that I really, really like. One of the things that I talk a lot about and you and I have talked about this Dr. Gearing, is how do we transfer the ownership to the student? I mean, how do we make their learning their own so that no matter where they want to go, they are now equipped to do it? So thank you for sharing that.

What was the impact of Gearing’s favorite teacher?

So I do have a follow up. When you were in school, who was your favorite teacher and why? 

My favorite teacher was a man named Mr. Doyle and he was a math teacher. And I became a math teacher – I think because of that influence. But I think he taught me two things. Number one, he had very high expectations.

You did math at a very high level in his classroom because he believed that you could. And that’s the second thing is he believed in me as a person. In fact, he saw things in me that I didn’t see in myself. And the way that he treated me, even though he held me to such high expectations, made me eventually believe that I could do those things, too.

And I think as educators, I translate our responsibility into those two things. We have to have extremely high expectations for learning and ownership of learning, but we also have to believe in the human individuals that we are helping to develop to their maximum potential because often they don’t see it in themselves. And when we see it in them and help them to see it in themselves, that’s when they can really fly.

And that’s truly when it becomes revolutionary. You know, teaching when you see an individual who sees himself in deficit terms and then through your practice, they’re able to see what they can be. To me, that’s the thing that I loved about teaching, finding students who would come into my class a little reticent to engage because they had not always been successful in school.

But through my practice they found a connection and an onramp to education, which I believe led to deeper learning and also more opportunities down the road. That’s the thing I do miss about teaching, is seeing that revolutionary aspect of it, that when students come in and they go, “Oh, okay, I see what I can be” as opposed to “what I thought I should be.”

And for me, you know, often people say, “Well, the joy of teaching is all about seeing the light come on in a student.” And what they’re referencing is sometimes only content based and that’s not what that moment is about. That moment is about self-awareness and that individual of who I can become.

Supporting a Culture of Voting

Here we are in election season, and in fact, early voting is underway in the primary election.

And with that being the case, can you tell me why you feel so passionately about people in our community getting out to vote as part of supporting a culture of voting?

You know, I think it’s about freedom and with freedom comes great power, but with power comes great responsibility.

And I think if we have to create our freedom, then we have the responsibility to make sure that we’re part of that process. And in the state of Texas, for sure, a very small number of people make decisions about who gets elected and what they’re able to do once they’re elected. And for me, that means we’re losing an opportunity for true freedom.

And it is our responsibility then to make sure that we our voice is heard in who is helping make decisions for what happens in our great state. And that has to do with education. But it really has to do with so much more. It has to do with our economy. It has to do with our quality of life. It has to do with access, like you mentioned earlier. It has to do with how people feel in terms of their sense of belonging and in terms of their ability to have equitable access to, really, prosperity. And every one of us deserves that. But then we have to take the responsibility to achieve that. And I believe the strongest way that we can do that is in the ballot box.

And so it’s critically important that each of us takes that responsibility to get registered and to go vote. And we are humans. Each of us is unique. And so all of us are going to think differently about the decisions that we make, and that is as it should be and we should go to the ballot well prepared, well educated about the decisions that we’re about to make, but we do have to go make those decisions.

When I reflect on the history of African-Americans and other people who did not always have access to the greatness of our country and to the ballot box, we have a responsibility to continue to advance access. And with increased responsibility and visibility, there comes that need to make sure your voice is heard.

And so I completely agree, because the freedom that we seek is one that encompasses all. And so I think the ballot box is the best way to do that. 

And I’ll push back a little bit and say that even though it is about marginalized populations in some cases, for the majority, it is really about just everyday people who are not allowing their voice to be heard because they’re not taking the responsibility to share it. And that is really a critical piece of this is it’s about a large portion of our population in our community. And when I say a large portion, I’m talking about more than 80% of our community does not allow their voice to be heard in elections. And that is, it’s a shame, because their voice is very important.

I had no idea the number was that high. 80%. Wow.

Yeah. If you look at primary elections in the state of Texas, a very small number, about 18% actually vote in primary elections. Well, we know that a lot of decisions are made in primaries in the state of Texas, and that’s a fact. That is not my opinion.

I knew about the distinction between the November election and primaries. I had no idea the number was that great. 

What is public education’s value in the 21st century?

So, Dr. Gearing, in your opinion, you know, since we’re talking about creating a culture of voting and making sure that more people have their voices heard, and public education is an area that I think civic education and helping people understand their responsibility is so important.

So in your opinion, what is the value proposition of public education in the 21st century for our state and for our nation? 

I mean, again, it’s about the reality of our situation. I know that education and I’ve told you that in my back story is the most important thing we can do for an individual to help create opportunity.

And in the state of Texas, the way that we are structured, the vast majority of our students are in public education. We have over 5.5 million children in the state of Texas in public schools. That is our future. It is just a fact. Whether we like it or not, the future leadership of our state, the future workforce of our state, the future citizenry of our state is right now sitting in public school classrooms.

So the work that we do in those public school classrooms is essential to the future of our state. And by definition, then the future of our nation. And the future of our world. Because Texas is the ninth largest economy in the world. 

Every time I hear that is staggering. 

It is staggering. But it’s true. We have an opportunity to be very influential in what happens.

And I believe that the job that we do in public education plays a huge role in how that future turns out. So we’ve got to do the best possible work that we can in public education that requires support. And honestly, it requires support of the folks who are in the trenches, in the classrooms every single day, every single day with our students.

And that is a value support. It is not only about compensation, it is about supporting those people as people. And the work that they do every day. And unfortunately, that is not a narrative that is strong in our state and one that needs to change. 

Why do you think that narrative is not as strong as it should be?

I’m not sure that I can point to exactly why that is …

Because I understand what you’re saying. I do. 

But I think it is clearly evident that we do not value teachers. We do not value instructional assistants. We do not value bus drivers in public education the way that they deserve to be valued for the work that they do with our students in our communities.

And part of it is what comes out in the Gallup poll every year. The closer you get to the actual classroom, the more people value. So that poll tells you that people love their teacher, their kid’s teacher. And they love their kid’s principal. And they actually love their kid’s public school because it’s usually a neighborhood school. There’s a strong sense of belonging, and they value that very highly. 

But the further you get away from the actual classroom, the more that sense of value falls. And so by the time we get to the state level, there is not a sense of value in what happens in public schools. And that narrative has to change.

Working here in Central Office, I was at a school improvement visit earlier this week and I was walking behind some kids in the hall and I saw these little kids who were engaged in learning – I think it was first grade. And it just reminds you two things that you said. The first is that the future of our state and our country is currently in our classrooms.

And then secondly, the closer you are to that, it is absolutely impossible not to understand how important it is. And so every chance I get, I have to remind myself of what we’re really about. And I think you said something else, Dr. Gearing, that really resonated with me. A lot of our educators and the people, bus drivers, CNS workers who are doing this work daily, the validation that they seek is not just compensation.

It’s the validation that comes from people recognizing that they’re doing something that is so important, that is shaping the future of our country. And I think many people miss that. And that’s the validation, when I was a classroom teacher … I left teaching in 2008 when, from an enterprise or a global standpoint, I would say many people still felt that way.

And I want us to get back to people realizing that the work we do in public education is truly transformational. 

It is. And I think we cannot forget either, though, that it has to be in tight partnership with our families. And our parents and in particular. They know our children way better than we do and ever will.

And they play a crucial role in supporting their children with their sense of belonging, with a sense of responsibility, with their sense of freedom, with their ownership of learning, and this ability to become individuals who can be adaptable and creative and great communicators and have this strong knowledge base. Because, you know, we know the world is changing extremely rapidly around us.

And so we’ve got really good at preparing kids for something. But I think we have to get much better at helping kids prepare themselves for anything. And I believe that we have to do that in partnership with our parents. We have to bring them in to this understanding of ownership of learning has to be with the learner. And we have to do that together.

And it has to be scaffolded over time, there’s no doubt. When we’ve got 3-year-olds in our PreK 3, we’re going to give them a lot of support. But we have to start there, even, helping them to set their own goals, helping to understand what their passions and aptitudes are and helping them develop those. And as we go, we should be scaffolding more and more away from us doing for and them doing for themselves.

The parent, the teacher in the child, all three are extremely important. So that kind of leads me to another area that I want to talk about. Perfect segue. 

The challenges facing public education

When you look at the landscape of public education in our state, you kind of talked about this before, but I want to see if we can dig a little bit deeper. What are some of the challenges that you see and how can we mitigate those challenges?

You know, connected to our parents, I was having a conversation with some elementary principals. And one of the things they told me was that it’s much more difficult now to have relationships with parents. And so my mind immediately jumped to COVID. And, you know, we didn’t allow them in the building. And so now we have struggled to maybe open that up and bring them back again. And they said no, it’s not about COVID, it’s about safety and security. 

So with all of the things we’re having to do as a public school because of safety and security, it’s a lot more difficult to be open and invite parents in the way that we did before.

And so that’s just one challenge, right, That we now face. That changes the landscape and really makes it more challenging for us to do what we’re saying – have this really tight partnership. Because when we know parents really well, guess what? Their kids benefit. When the parents know what we’re doing really well, guess what? The kids benefit. And they see that positive interaction and there’s synergy that’s built in those moments of interaction. So that that’s something that’s definitely a challenge. 

I think, at the state level, politically, I do think we have a challenge with public education. If we look at the last session and we see the fact that we had the biggest surplus in history and nothing was done to support public education, I think that is telling. I look forward to the ‘25 session when we can come back and try to address those issues again.

The future of our state is sitting in our public school classrooms. What can we do together to really benefit and make sure that the educators that we’re putting in those classrooms with those students are the highest quality, the best trained and feel valued? Because guess what? When they feel valued, they do much better work. And when they do much better work, our kids benefit and then the future of our state benefits.

And so that’s the connection that I see is how do we really come together as a state to say “we want to support public education” and most importantly, “we want to support public educators.” Because when we do that, I think we benefit kids. And that turns into economic development.

It turns into us, as a state, thriving. And we can do that, but we have to do it together.

Yes. And it also turns into – I agree 100% – It also turns into us, going back to your earlier point about expanding the definition of freedom and responsibility we all have. And then you said something else that made me think about it, too, Dr. Gearing. When you talk about all of us, it takes all of us to support public education, I think that’s important. I think sometimes we miss that. I mean, this is benefiting our entire state, every single person. So it takes all of us without distinction.

And it’s not about taking away anybody’s choice. I believe strongly in choice.

We all have that freedom of saying, “This is how I want to educate my children and this is how I want to do this development of this unique human being.” But for those who don’t have a choice, we have an obligation, a responsibility to make that opportunity the best possible that it can be. And that does take funding, that does take support of educators, that does take us really stepping out on a limb and doing some things differently to make sure that that can happen.

The future of public education

So when you think about the future state of public education, Dr. Gearing, what does that look like in your mind? Going back to focusing on those students who may not have a choice, how do we continue to move forward in a way where they get what they need when they need it?

Here’s the thing I know: 70% of our current 2nd-graders are going to do multiple jobs in their lifetime, not just one, but multiple that don’t exist right now. Yet our job is to prepare them for that workforce. So we cannot prepare them for something because we don’t know what that thing is. We have to help them to prepare themselves for anything because it’s going to shift even in their lifetime. And that is going to be the future of what we have to do. 

That means we have to create learners. We have to create individuals who know themselves really well, who are adept at setting goals and who have pathways inside our system to achieve their goals. That’s going to require a lot more flexibility on our part, because we can’t just lockstep do what we do for every kid. And kids are jagged so they don’t develop all at the same rate. They don’t develop in the same areas. They have aptitudes for some things and don’t for others. We have to acknowledge the reality of human beings and how they develop and how they learn.

And we are going to have to, as public schools, shift and change with that as we grow. And so you’ll start to hear us talking a lot more about: what are those individual interactions look like between adults and kids, between kids and kids and between adults and adults, that further this ownership of learning that says our job is not to prepare students for something. Our job is to help students prepare themselves for anything. 

And that “students” is a misleading term sometimes because I don’t mean by that term only kids, because we’re all students, we’re all learners in this process and we have to be learning as fast as they are. 

You know, it’s fascinating. My brother’s a mechanical engineer, and he works for BMW in South Africa. And in my mind, I have this idea of what a mechanical engineer is. And it’s about building cars. It’s about creating, you know, mechanisms to make the grain going in a railway car better. But as I started doing some research recently into what mechanical engineers do today, I learned that actually they’re doing things like creating optical tweezers where they’re using laser beams of light to capture single nanoparticles so that they can move them to exactly the right spot on a chip because they have to create that chip small enough and efficient enough to operate tiny machine learning on your iWatch.

That’s what mechanical engineers are doing today. We don’t know what they’re going to be doing in a year from now. Because they’ll have invented something new that is driving the technology. It is changing extremely rapidly, and our kids have to be prepared for that reality. That means they have to have a set of skills and an adaptability built in that allows them to do that.

When we were … when I worked in workforce, we talked a lot about the portability of skills, right? And so I hear a lot of that in what you’re saying here. How do we give them the skills to navigate whatever world they will need to navigate? I completely agree.

And there are some significant challenges that are going to face the generations that are coming. We can see with climate change, we can see with technology’s rapid change and increase. We can see what’s happening with population growth. We can see all of these things come in. They will deal with another pandemic at some point. And they’re going to have to face those challenges head on.

Resources are finite on this planet. They’re going to have to figure that out. These are big challenges. These are not things that are going to be easily fixed and they are going to face those challenges. 

And I think our job is to make sure they’re ready for that. 

Key takeaways from Gearing’s time as an educator

So my last question for you is as you reflect on your time as an educator, what are the big lessons that you take away from your … I think you and I discussed this: I think you’ve been an educator now for about 28 years. So what are the big takeaways for you, Dr. Gearing? Because when I think about that, I think about the impact that my students had on me and how that was both humbling and transformational. And so I always think about that. I have a framed placard at home with my last group of students from 2008, and they all signed their names.

And when I need to be grounded about what I’m about and what my mission is, I always look to that. So what are some of the key takeaways for you?

I think for me, the biggest moments in my public education career have been when I’ve seen a student really understand who they are and what they’re capable of achieving and then go out and do it. And I’ve seen it happen so many times, but I’ve also seen students that never got to that moment in time. And they went on and they lived life, but they never achieved their potential. And that’s a loss for our planet, honestly. 

So for me, it’s about how do we better make sure that each and every individual gets to that moment of self-realization where they go: “This is who I am and this is what I’m meant to do, and now I’m going to go do it because I have the tools, because of my education to take that next step. And my learning is never done, but I know how to take that next step in getting closer to my potential.”

And that’s what it’s all about for me. If we can do that for each and every individual, then we will have accomplished our goal of transformation.

I completely agree. And I would love to continue the conversation on a future episode to talk about adult learning, Dr. Gearing. 

Closing on a Culture of Voting

So is there anything else that you would like to add to our discussion as we come to a close? 

We started this as a culture of voting, and I do want to come back to that because I think it’s critically important.

It’s interesting. In other countries, there are countries in the world that force everybody to vote. And the reality of those countries is they have much more centrist governments. And I’m not saying that we should force everybody to vote, but we are all free to vote and we should take that responsibility to allow our voice to be heard. Because I think then we might come back from some of the margins to the center, where it’s messy and it’s difficult and there are all the challenges …

Very complex. 

It’s very complex. But if we’re in it together and we’re prepared to work through that messiness together, I think we can achieve a much better result.

So just a reminder that we are in early voting already and early voting runs through the end of Friday, March 1. You can vote anywhere in the county that you reside in and you can vote in either the Democrat or the Republican primary. That is your choice and that does affect how you get to vote in November in the general election. Of course, Election Day is Tuesday, March 5, and polls will be open 7 to 7. We have multiple campuses in the district that are serving as polling places. And so please become a voter.

Dr. Gearing, it’s been an honor speaking with you today. I want to thank you for having this important conversation with me.

I’m certain that our listeners learned a great deal about why creating a culture of voting is so important to our community. And I look forward to continue our discussion in the coming months. 

Thank you, DeWayne.

Thank you.