A four-decade career in education

NEWBERRY COUNTY -- Jim Suber Jr. has served as an educator for the Newberry County School District for 41 years, in that time he has been a teacher, coach, athletic director, assistant principal, principal, assistant superintendent for operations and administration and superintendent.

Today, Suber is “hanging up his hat” as he has announced he will retire following four decades in education.

Going back in time to 1980, Suber got his start in the Newberry County School District at Whitmire High School. Just fresh out of Newberry College, Suber said three former coaches at Whitmire High School (his high school alma mater) are the reason he went into education and became his early mentors.

“Principal Ken Coleman, football coach and Athletic Director Lefty Johnson and my boys’ basketball coach Irby Raines,” Suber said.

Suber told the story of when Raines called him in 1980, when he graduated from college. Suber said his degree was in physical education and he got a call from Raines and Johnson, they wanted to talk with him.

“One thing led to another, Coach Johnson went into the principalship at that time, and he said they might have a position open, and was I interested,” Suber said.

Raines was giving up his PE classes, according to Suber, and was teaching in his area of concentration. Suber then took over most of the PE classes at Whitmire High School, as well as a health class and an American government class.

“If it was not for those guys rearranging their schedules and Coach Raines going back into the classroom, I would never have gotten my start at Whitmire High School,” Suber said.

That phone call in 1980 led to a chain of events that would eventually culminate in a four-decade career in the School District of Newberry County.

“A lot of people go through the steps, when they come out of college and start their career, whether it is a teaching position, in my case it was a teaching/coaching position. Over the years, my first 14-15 years, I had three different superintendents bring me in and have a conversation with me about going into administration. I told them, at the time, I wasn’t interested, I had not started my administration degree work yet,” Suber said.

Suber was a teacher at Whitmire High School from 1980-1995, and on top of being a teacher, there was a good chunk of time he was the head boys’ basketball coach, head football coach and the athletic director.

Then, in August of 1995, he transitioned into the role of assistant principal at Whitmire High School.

“Tec Dowling (a mentor) was our superintendent then, he hired me as an assistant principal and at that point in time I was already working on my administration degree, I finished that through Clemson University,” Suber said.

Over the years, Suber said received a couple of opportunities to go elsewhere and he did interview at a couple of school districts he said came calling.

“I turned down a couple of positions, I was offered a principalship, before I became principal at Whitmire, at another school and I turned that one down,” Suber said. “I had one of my mentors that was a superintendent tell me, at that time, ‘you are very loyal to this school district and your school, but you have opportunities to move up, don’t let your loyalty get in the way for what may be best for your family.’”

Suber said that weighed on him and that it was good advice. However, as it would happen, an opportunity came up that led him to become principal at Whitmire High School in 2002.

“Dr. Keith Callicutt transitioned to superintendent and it was mid-year in January 2002, Dr. Callicutt made some administration changes in the school district and he called me in at the end of December and had a conversation with me and said, ‘I’d like you to become the principal at Whitmire High School,’” Suber said.

Suber said he remembers that he looked at Callicutt kind of funny and said, “I assume you’re talking about next school year?”

However, Callicutt said no, he was talking about January.

“That worked out, I started the principalship mid-year, Callicutt was another mentor that was very supportive and gave me an opportunity to be principal, at that time a 7th-12th setting,” Suber said.

The consolidation would then take place in the mid-2000s, and Whitmire became Pre-K-12 school.

“One of the biggest challenges in my administrative career, moved to a principalship in pre-K through 12th grade building. I was pretty comfortable with the middle school and high school aspects of education, but I had never been a teacher or administrator in elementary school,” Suber said.

Suber laughed as he said he had some anxiety there.

However, he would go to inherit a wonderful staff, he said.

“It was a blessing to open that school and I’m extremely proud the enrollment has grown in that school over the years, and it is on solid ground,” Suber said.

In 2007, Suber was given the opportunity by Superintendent Bennie Bennett to work in the district office.

“Mr. Bennett interviewed me for the position of assistant superintendent for operations and administration and, being perfectly honest, I was happy doing what I was doing. I was serving as the principal for the new Pre-K-12 school in Whitmire,” Suber said.

Suber recalled Bennett calling him and telling him that he may have a position coming up. He said that Bennett said, “I’m going to do some reorganization on my staff, would you potentially have an interest in one of the positions?”

Suber said that he told Bennett that he would be willing to sit down and talk.

“Those talks led to a more serious discussion, I interviewed and when I came back for my second interview, he asked me multiple questions and when he did the reorganization, he changed the title from assistant superintendent for operations and finance to assistant superintendent for operations and administration,” Suber said.

Suber added that Bennett asked the questions he wanted to ask and then he said, “do you have any questions?”

Suber said he didn’t have any and that Bennett laid out everything he needed to know out.

It was then Bennett said, “well, I have a question for you.” Suber then recalled how Bennett told him that he was the only candidate that interviewed for that position that did not ask what he meant by assistant superintendent for operations and administration. Bennett then asked Suber why he didn’t ask him that question.

Suber recalled what he said at that time, “Mr. Bennett, walking in your shoes and having the responsibilities of superintendent, I get the feeling your plate is overflowing and you want some assistance on the administrative side.”

Bennett told Suber that he was 100% correct.

“Long story short, we had more conversations and I told him I’d be more than willing to accept the position,” Suber said.

Suber added that Bennett asked him one more question at that time, Bennett asked Suber why he didn’t ask him about the salary.

“I’ll never forget that,” Suber said. “I told Mr. Bennett to come and work for a guy of your stature, with the respect I have for you as superintendent, I’m not worried about salary, but number one, I know you’re going to be fair, but I’ve got a lot of things to learn and I think I can learn a lot of those things from you.”

After accepting the position at the district office, Suber said he would never forget a touching moment when he returned to Whitmire Community School for an athletic event.

He recalled walking in the gate and one of his old coaches said, “here comes the traitor.” Suber recalled asking the coach what he meant. The coach told him he couldn’t believe he was leaving the school to be in the district office and asked if he knew what he was getting into.

Suber responded by saying it was a great opportunity for his family and himself, but he’d miss Whitmire Community School.

“He (the coach) busted out laughing and said, ‘I’m just kidding.’ He said he was proud,” Suber recalled.

Suber would go on to spend nine years in that position, but in 2016 tragedy struck when Bennett passed away following a car accident.

“No one wants to advance in a position due to tragedy, but in April 2016 we unfortunately lost Mr. Bennett. Our board met on Sunday (accident took place on Saturday) had some conversations and the next couple of board meetings, there were conversations about the superintendency,” Suber said. “I told them I certainly was honored to finish the rest of the year, but out of respect to Mr. Bennett and his family, I’d rather they wait and make a final decision at the end of the school year. That is what they chose to do. I think it was May of 2016 that they offered me the permanent superintendency and I gladly accepted it.”

Suber added that he was very humbled and proud to carry on what Bennett started and that Bennett was an absolutely wonderful leader.

In regard to moving up the ranks of the Newberry County School District, Suber recalled someone telling him a long ago that if you feel like you are moving ahead and taking a step up and you are going in the right direction, and you are doing it for the right reasons, don’t look back and second guess yourself.

“I’ve always taken that to be good advice and when I moved up to a new level, I missed the places I left, but professionally, you don’t look back and regret it because you will make yourself miserable,” Suber said.

Suber said that is one of the reasons he has been able to be in the district for 41 years.

“I get emotional talking about it, I’ve had so many people since I’ve announced retirement to say, ‘wow, 41 years, no way I’m going to do that.’ I can honestly say, for 41 years there has not been a day I have dreaded going to work. I have loved everything I’ve done; I’ve loved my profession and I have certainly loved this school district and I am going to miss it tremendously,” Suber said. “But, during all of that time, you spend more time with everyone else’s children than you do your own. I have three grown children and I’m very proud of them, but also have four grandchildren and it is time to spend time with my wife, three girls and four grandchildren — we are certainly looking forward to it.”

In his last year with the district, Suber and the district had to face the COVID-19 pandemic, something he never thought he’d see.

There have been a lot of procedures put in place to deal with the pandemic, wearing face coverings, Plexiglas, social distancing, things that will stay in place until the end of the school year.

“We’ve gotten better because we have done things the right way, we don’t want to let our guard down. If you stop being proactive too early, you can jump back into the fire and we don’t want to do that,” he said. “Precautions that have been in place, from a social standpoint, you are never going to please everyone with the circumstances you put in place,” Suber said.

Suber added that they will do everything they can to keep every student, parent and employee in the school district safe.

“I think we have done that, been a blessing to get CARES Act money and do things we’ve been able to do, like disinfect buildings on a regular basis,” he said.

However, Suber said that with every challenge comes an opportunity, which is something he learned his first year as assistant superintendent from the late Donnie Layton.

He said that Layton told him, “look at every challenge as a problem and you’re going to be miserable. We can overcome any challenge by working together and have a positive attitude and a great work ethic.”

That has been something Suber has taken with him, and he has used that mindset to tackle every challenge.

In his 41 years of education, Suber has had the opportunity to see thousands of students grow into successful adults, something he says is the ultimate joy, satisfaction and gratification for anyone that works in education.

“To see those young people that have come to you as students and student athletes and see them years later be successful. Some have gone on to be superintendents, doctors, lawyers, CEOs, presidents of colleges, you name it. We have had a whole lot of success,” Suber said.

This led Suber to say that he has never been successful in anything he’s done without the support of the people around him and the people that work with him.

“I think that is something coaching does for you, makes you focus on and understand and cherish the true meaning of teamwork. We tried to express that to all levels, whether it has been in classrooms, whether it has been in the athletic arenas, whether it has been in academics, we are one. I have never asked any of my staff to do anything I wasn’t willing to do myself, but I also firmly believe that you hire good people, and you train those people to do organizationally what you want done. You give them the tools, equipment and support necessary to be successful and then you get out of their way and let them do their work,” he said.

“Far too many instances, and this is not just in education, but a micromanager that attempts to have their fingerprints on everything that happens during the day, ultimately is not very successful. You’ve got to have faith and confidence in the people that you hire and support them and that is one of the reasons we have some people that have longevity in the school district. We take pride in giving them everything they need and getting out of their way and letting them do what they are trained to do.”

Suber added that he does not believe in being a micromanager, he believes in teamwork.

“Any superintendent that has sat in this chair will tell you a superintendent is only as successful as people they surround themselves with and as successful as the young students in those classrooms,” he said.

Over his four decades in education, Suber has seen many changes some of them good and some of them were challenges.

“Probably one of the biggest changes in education we now have, whether it is state mandated testing, federally mandated testing, we need to focus more on what we are doing in the classroom and less on standardized tests that were forced upon us on a regular basis,” he said. “We can, without a doubt, properly evaluate children and use diagnostic tests that are tried and true, to know where our children need to go as far as academics.”

Suber said the number of days allotted at the end of the year for testing takes away what they could be teaching.

Another challenge has been the teacher shortage — which he said is pretty severe across the country.

“I think we really need to sit back and look at what we require our teachers and administrators to do. We need to give them the tools to be successful and let them to their work,” he said. “The other thing is, one of the main reasons we have teachers that are not going into education, they can come out of college and make more than teachers get paid. We’ve got to do something about teachers’ pay.”

Suber will close the book on his career in education on July 1, 2021.

A four-decade career in education | Newberry Observer