Q&A with First Lady Sandra Deal: Once a Teacher, Always a Teacher
Sandra Deal's initiatives range from reading to children and advocating for good childcare to researching and writing a book about the Governor's Mansion.
It’s not surprising that Sandra Deal, a former teacher, has made education her focus since becoming Georgia’s First Lady in 2011. She has used her public platform not just to support educational endeavors, but has immersed herself in promoting literacy and the value of reading.
Through her Read Across Georgia project, she has visited every one of Georgia’s 159 counties to read to students in each school system in the state, making more than 830 classroom visits – sometimes six to eight in a single day. (After a Stage 1 breast cancer diagnosis earlier this year, she announced her intention to continue reading to students throughout the state – and urged women to schedule annual mammograms.)
In her work, she has drawn on her experiences as an educator, a parent and a grandparent.
She is also a strong advocate for good childcare. Last fall she was part of the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s program, “Our Future Workforce: The Business Case for High-Quality Childcare.” She is co-chair of the Georgia Literacy Commission and has co-authored a book on the Governor’s Mansion called Memories of the Mansion.
The first lady, a native of Gainesville, talked about her interest in education and her classroom experiences with Georgia Trend’s Editor-At-Large Susan Percy at the mansion. Following are edited highlights of the interview.
GT: What went into your decision to involve yourself in education as first lady?
Deal: Of course, I was a teacher. But when I came here, there were no expectations. Nathan went off to the Capitol to work, and I said, “What am I supposed to do?” They said, “You don’t have to do anything.” I said, “I can’t sit upstairs and drink tea and read magazines for the rest of my life. I have to be busy. I’ve been busy all my life.”
GT: And education was a natural focus?
Deal: It’s so important to their [students’] future and our future. As Georgians, we want them to be able to fill the jobs that are coming to Georgia. They need more than a GED. They need technical training or college education, so they can find those good jobs and stay employed. That is the freedom we all look for – self-sufficiency. That is what being literate, having an education means – being able to be in charge of your own life.
GT: Why the emphasis on reading?
Deal: When my son [Jason] was young – he was my first child – I read to him and read to him and we talked about books. But I didn’t teach him how to read even though I was trained as a teacher. The thought process back then was if you teach them too soon, they’ll misbehave in class. I didn’t try to push him to read for himself. He had great depth of understanding, but he got to school and he didn’t want to read. I had him tested. The teacher said there is nothing wrong with this child except he is stubborn. He doesn’t want to slow his mind down to recall words.
We practiced and we cried and we practiced. We finally got him reading. He didn’t like [it] at first – it was third grade when he finally enjoyed reading.
GT: Anything from your time as a teacher that played a part in Read Across Georgia?
Deal: I taught in middle school. I had sixth graders who couldn’t read. Some of them were very bright children, and I thought they should have been taught sooner – like he [my son] should have been. They probably couldn’t slow their minds down to learn to read. Also there were those who were never taught. I just felt like reading was so important.
About that time Nathan got the survey [showing] that so many in our prisons lacked a high school diploma. We knew from experience that a lot of kids dropped out when they were ninth graders, 10th graders. As soon as they turned 16, they were out of there. I had substituted in high school when my children were growing up. I was familiar with a lot of high school students who were just waiting until they could get out, and it just broke my heart.
With all of those different things, knowing that Nathan was trying to attract business here so people could have jobs, it stood to reason that we had to get our children reading and get them educated. I thought what better way to use my time than to get out and read to children and encourage them to want to learn to read.
They have to open their minds and put effort into reading and practicing and learning their words. That’s really what drove me to want to read to so many children.
GT: What kind of a reception did you get?
Deal: When I went to so many of the places, especially in the rural areas, they were so excited to see me. They thought I was somebody, like a princess, that rode in a limousine and wore fancy clothes and beautiful jewelry. I wanted them to realize that we’re just normal people. That I’m a grandmama just like a lot of their grandmamas.
GT: Did you start out with the idea to read to children in every Georgia county?
Deal: As we read in different areas across the state it occurred to me that we ought to try to get to every area, so everybody knows how important the governor and I think reading is to their future. It just sort of developed as we went. I got to every county.
GT: What were the reading sessions like?
Deal: Sometimes they would have the whole school come to the gym and have me read. It was exciting because nobody of any position they understood to be special, like the governor, had ever been to their school. It introduced Atlanta and the Capitol and the mansion to groups of children that had never thought about places beyond their own community. I felt it was important, letting them know there’s a bigger world out there. You have to prepare for it if you’re going to live in it and be a part of it.
In most cases the teachers have done a little prep work. They tell them I’m the governor’s wife, but sometimes I’m just a guest reader who walks in. I answer their questions. I don’t go in to do anything except to encourage them to want to learn to read.
I tell them, as much as their teacher would like to make a hole in their heads and pour the information in, it just doesn’t work that way. They have to put the work into it. They have to have a dream and a vision, have to have an idea of what they want to do and work toward that plan.
GT: You used the book Who I’d Like To Be for some of your reading visits. Did you talk to the children about the book?
Deal: We’d talk about what they’d like to be – fireman, policeman, whatever they chose to tell me. For some, it was their chance to show me they knew big vocabulary words like orthodontist.
GT: Was reading a big part of your life when you were growing up?
Deal: I was the oldest of four, and my brothers were a good bit younger, so I read to them. But Mother also kept children at home before she could go back to work. I would read to them and sing with them. Then I had four children of my own. I read to them. The library was very important – we always went to the library to check out books. My children still do that and their children, too.
GT: There are a lot of teachers in your family, aren’t there?
Deal: I trained as a teacher. My mother was a teacher, and my daddy was a teacher. Of course, Nathan’s mother was a teacher – she taught first grade for nearly 40 years. Nathan’s daddy taught.
GT: You have been an advocate for quality childcare for working parents, and you have experience as a working mother. I believe you went back to teaching when your children were older?
Deal: When I got a chance to recertify, I was thrilled. I did that when [Nathan] decided he wasn’t going to stay in the state Senate. He was going to come home, so I went back and recertified and accepted a job. Then Ed Jenkins decided to retire from Congress and people started after him to run for Congress. He decided to run [in 1991]. I’d already accepted a job.
We didn’t go to Washington. We stayed here. I had two in college, two going to middle school. I felt like the stability of being here was more important. I knew the kids they would be doing activities with, I knew the families. In Washington, I wouldn’t know the families. So I made the call to stay in Georgia, because I know Nathan is such a homebody. Sure enough, every weekend, he came home.
GT: Would you talk a bit about your commitment to good childcare and the message you are bringing to businesses?
Deal: If parents are going to work, they have to have somebody to take care of their children and are dependent on people they hire. That can be a good thing, and that cannot be a good thing. You have to be very careful about who you hire. It’s important for businesses to at least consider [offering help to] their employees.
More and more, we’ve realized that the brain develops at a younger age – 60 or 70 percent of the brain is developed by time they reach age three. If you have somebody just babysitting your children, putting them in front of the TV, they’re not getting an education. If you want your child to develop his brain, you want somebody who interacts with the child. More and more we realize the importance of good childcare, people who are trained to teach the child. Good preschools are very expensive; when you have more than one child, it gets exorbitant.
GT: You’ve said you would like to see more businesses establish onsite childcare and preschools.
Deal: One option is for businesses who really need good, well-trained, very bright employees to offer the opportunity for some preschool for their children, so the parent can know their child is safe and have the option of going to see the child during the day. Hospitals have done that for years. Georgia Power has done that, and Home Depot has done some work with that sort of thing.
That’s a big undertaking for a business, because it is costly; but if you need well-trained employees that you can depend on, then you have to help them.
GT: Anything else you could suggest for businesses to do to help parents?
Deal: Financial help. They may be able to give a financial incentive to go toward childcare. Some businesses supplement schools to try and help the parents.
GT: Your educational advocacy extends beyond school-age Georgians, doesn’t it?
Deal: We’ve also worked with the Georgia Literacy Commission – trying to make the circle complete, so they [adults] can read to their children, so they can help their children. Children do what they see done. If parents are reading, the child will more likely read. It also lets kids know that they think education is important.
GT: Writing your book, Memories of the Mansion, was something of an educational project.
Deal: When I got here and we were preparing for the inauguration, [Joy Forth, mansion director] said we’ll start tours back on such and such date. I said, “What tours?” I did not realize this house was a museum. I had been here multiple times, but it was receptions or luncheons or dinners. I didn’t know anything about this house. I thought, I’ve got to learn something about the house. I don’t know enough to do a tour.
GT: Where did you start?
Deal: I said I will invite all the [past] governors and their wives to come and have dinner and ask them questions about this house. They were a little surprised, because here we were Republicans inviting all these Democrats to come. We sat at the dinner table and had nice conversations. Only they wanted to talk about people from the past and incidents and stories they told about different people – everybody knew everybody. They didn’t talk about this house a bit. I learned very little.
GT: So how did you find the information you were looking for?
Deal: I asked Mrs. Sanders [Betty Sanders, wife of Gov. Carl Sanders]: “I’d like to talk to you and ask some questions.” She said, “Honey, just call me.” The next week we did. She pulled some information about the house she thought I’d like to read and named some people we could talk to.
I began to talk to people, gather together information. As I would learn something, I would tell the docents and they would say, “You need to write all this down.”
GT: So you decided to do it?
Deal: I wanted it to be for people to enjoy, wanted children to be able to read it. I wanted the first part to be a little bit about the history of Georgia, then a section with beautiful pictures of this house, the rest about each of the families. No politics in it. This is strictly a love story of the mansion.
GT: Have you enjoyed the work you have done as first lady?
Deal: I have thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s just a joy for me to be able to get out and serve people, and I think I have insight that gives me the wisdom to know what is important in life. It’s important to make your life count and imprint the lives of others while you have the opportunity. Nathan and I feel it is so important, encouraging education, because it builds the future.