Thomas R. Oldt
Winter Haven High School math teacher Renard Ellis has a somewhat unique perspective as it relates to the students he encounters.
He knows what it’s like to be an academic star, having achieved a 4.2 average in high school himself. He knows what it’s like to be an athletic star, having been a football standout. But he also knows what it’s like to live out of a car and to sleep on the floor of a relative’s house as the son of a single mother struggling to survive.
So it’s little surprise that he’s an empathetic teacher popular with his students and the football players he helps coach.
Now a 33-year-old husband and father, the California native came to Polk County at age 5, attending public schools and graduating from Winter Haven High before receiving his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Mississippi College.
Q. You were an outstanding defensive end and linebacker at Winter Haven but also a stellar student. Who were the greatest influences in your life?
A. My mother was my everything. After she and my father divorced, we went through some struggles, living in a car, her working five jobs at one point. We didn’t have it as rough as some people, but it definitely wasn’t easy. I watched my mother overcome a lot of obstacles, and that’s what she instilled in me.
Q. Who else had an impact during your student years?
A. When you’re raised by a single mother, you’re always looking for a father figure. I had a discipline issue when I was young, then I found martial arts and I found big inspiration there. I was good at it and competed all over the state. I’ve had numerous teachers, from my kindergarten teacher on, who were very influential. And especially coach Charlie Tate – he taught me a ton.
Most kids play football because they think it’s their ticket out. I was realistic, just wanted to have fun. Then Coach Tate came in his first year and we went three rounds into the playoffs. I was in (advanced placement) classes, so I missed out on weight training. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I was bigger, faster, stronger, but that group of guys played because we loved it. And it worked out – I went to a recruiting fair and ended up in college.
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Q. How old were you when you first became attracted to mathematics? What was it about math that intrigued you?
A. I’ve always been a math person. It’s just my thing. I had one of the best math teachers ever in Polk County, Victor Chandler, a literal genius. He got to know you as a student, kept up with football games, athletics. He was one of the only teachers who still used chalk. He would do a big calculus problem, the bell would ring, and we’d come back the next day. The board would be clean and he’d put up the problem exactly where he had left off. He was an inspiration for higher level math.
Amy Lewis, who just retired, was another inspiration. Going in as a first-year teacher, they really don’t prepare you for how you should actually teach. When I got there, it was like, here’s your classroom, here’re your books. Luckily, I was two classrooms down from Amy Lewis – she was my mentor, she helped me a lot. By the second year, it was a cakewalk.
Q. When did you decide to make it your career?
A. I never would have thought I’d be a teacher. I thought I’d be a lawyer. I fell in love with coaching, but at first there was no full-time position – in the coaching industry it’s all about who you know. But I was lucky enough to get a position at Webber University for three years. I loved small college football, more of a family environment. But after I got married, it was time to make a little more money and start a family, which is how I came back to Winter Haven, to coach and teach.
Q. And the math department had an opening?
A. Yes. The turnaround in public schools is crazy. There’s always a deficit of teachers. Since I’ve been at the high school, seven years now, there are always 30 or 40 new teachers each year. I think part of the reason that school grades lag is because of the turnover of teachers.
Q. What subjects do you teach?
A. Algebra and personal finance, which is a dual enrollment with Southeastern University. I also teach AVID, which stands for “advancement via individual determination,” an elective designed to take mid-level kids and introduce them to more rigorous courses. It’s like my baby. I get a group of kids and have them every year and we’re working on college prep. The five pillars of the program are writing, enquiry, collaboration, organization and reading. This is our first group of seniors and just to watch them grow every year is awesome. You develop relationships. It’s not always about academics. There are some with family problems and I’m someone they trust, they can talk to, and I value that as much as the education part.
Q. The idea is college prep?
A. The number one goal is college readiness, but I’m a little more realistic. Yes, it would be nice if everyone went to college. But as I tell them – not all of you are going to go to college, nor do all of you need to go to college. Some of you already know what you want to do, so let’s just be prepared for life after high school.
This generation of kids, they’re after the money – it’s the number one thing I hear. And I try to instill in them that it shouldn’t be all about money, that you want to wake up and do something you love every day and if you’re good at it the money will come. You can go to Ridge, become an electrician, a plumber, a diesel mechanic, and you’ll make more money than teachers. But if you’re just chasing money, you’ll never be happy. We’re trying to get the kids to understand that at some point they’re on their own and they need to be prepared for it.
Q. How do you motivate kids who are not motivated?
A. That’s a tough one. What I try to do is get to know them first, see where they’re coming from. Everyone has a story, some have had it rougher than others, so I try to find a spot where I can relate to them because I’ve been though a little bit and I’ve seen a lot. I try to figure out how to push their buttons. I don’t put myself on their level, but I try to understand their level. Sometimes I do things just to get a reaction. They know I’m still the teacher. But once I see how they’re ticking, I try to adapt my teaching style to them. I’m personable. I walk around, I kneel by their desks to help them, I switch the seating around so that they get to know other people. You may not like everyone, but in the future you’re going to have to work with someone you may not like. Of course, it doesn’t always work out. You can’t fix everything.
Q. Leaving aside COVID, how are things different from when you were a student?
A. Aside from the aesthetics of the school – all new buildings – it’s just a different generation of kids. When I was in high school, I was in AP and honors classes. When I started teaching, it was “intensive math” – lower ranking kids. I didn’t realize kids couldn’t add or subtract negative numbers. Some couldn’t even do simple, basic math. It really opened up my eyes that first year of teaching because I dislike failure – although failing can be a good thing if you learn from it. Everyone is not going to succeed, but if we learn a little bit then we’re going in the right direction.
Q. If you possessed the authority, what changes would you make in the way schools operate?
A. Kids can be ruthless, no doubt about it. So classroom management is a big deal, and it’s something they really don’t prepare you for when you go into teaching. Preparing first-year teachers is something we can do better. Let them follow other teachers for a period of time instead of just throwing them into the classroom. But I’m glad I came back to Winter Haven, and it’s awesome to see alumni come back to teach. I think it means more to teachers who graduated from their schools who came back to teach in them.
Q. As a male and as a minority, you are a bit of an anomaly in the public school system here. Whether you think about it consciously or not, you are a role model. How do you assess your particular strengths?
A. I’m a people person. I’m easy to get along with, laid back. I’ll go above and beyond. Going into teaching, I didn’t realize that there aren’t many male minority teachers. I didn’t realize how low the numbers are. Our school is now predominately Hispanic and African American, and it’s crazy that there aren’t many male minority teachers. I don’t know that there’s more than five at our school. The reward is when students come back to thank you. I’ve taught kids who are now at Harvard, West Point. Getting to follow their careers and staying in touch is what it’s all about for me. It’s rewarding to know that, here were these kids struggling as freshmen and look where they are now.
Thomas R. Oldt can be reached at [email protected].