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Vox Voice Podcast: Episode 14 - Brian Yearwood

Brian Yearwood is taking to Columbia and inspiring its next generation of scholars

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Yearwood reading.jpeg

Brian Yearwood reads to scholars at Fairview Elementary School. 

As the superintendent of Columbia Public Schools, Brian Yearwood sees scholars not only as adult professionals with master's and doctoral degrees, but also as the children who run around on the playground. He has a vision for potential, and it's one reason why he refers to the students in Columbia Public Schools as scholars. He wants the community to see them as active participants in their own learning, and he wants the scholars to see themselves that way, too. 

Yearwood started as the district's superintendent in July and has since discovered a lot about his colleagues and the city he's now calling home. On this episode of Vox Voice, hear about his journey to Columbia, his philosophy on education and the hobbies that have literally helped him touch the sky.

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Vox Voice Episode 14: Brian Yearwood
Brian Yearwood is the new superintendent of Columbia Public Schools. Originally born in Trinidad and Tobago, Yearwood is stepping into his first role as a superintendent. Hear about his journey to Columbia, his philosophy on education and his hobbies that have literally helped him touch the sky on this episode of Vox Voice.

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Grace Cooper, 0:04: After more than a year of online learning, Columbia Public Schools students are back in the classroom. The start of a new school year typically means new teachers, new books and maybe even new friends. But this year another new face, Dr. Brian Yearwood, welcomed back students, or as he calls them, scholars. Yearwood serves as the new superintendent of Columbia Public Schools, a role he stepped into on July 1. He joins Columbia Public Schools after the retirement of Peter Stiepleman, who served in the role for seven years. Now, Yearwood is eager to take the reins of the educational horse wagon. I'm your host Grace Cooper. Here, Vox Voice’s Katelynn Mcllwain speaks with Mr. Yearwood about his educational journey and priorities ahead, as well as his love of sports, automobiles and family time. Welcome to Vox Voice.

Katelynn Mcllwain, 0:57: Hello, everyone. I'm Katelynn Mcllwain, and I'm joined by Dr. Brian Yearwood, the new superintendent of Columbia Public Schools. Dr. Yearwood, thank you so much for joining us today.

Brian Yearwood, 1:07: Thank you for inviting me.

KM, 1:09: Let's get right into it. So you've been in Colombia for a few months. How's it been?

BY, 1:15: It's been fantastic. I've had an opportunity to interact with different community members, parents, or scholars or teachers, and it's been just a wonderful experience. It has surpassed even my expectations of the kindness and there are great people, the great individuals that live in this community. And of course, a phenomenal staff. I have to always mention that.

KM, 1:41: And is there anything you love about the city in particular?

BY, 1:45: Yes, I love the openness in terms of everyone being so much appreciative of the environment. I enjoyed just the trees, the hills, the foliage; that's the great outdoors. I think it promotes a greater sense of just wellbeing because we're able to walk outside and breathe in some good fresh air. And just, you know, see the wind blowing and see the birds and the different animals around. It's just been surreal for me.

KM, 2:19: Any parks in particular that you like to visit?

BY, 2:22: I haven't found a park yet to visit but I know when my grandchildren come, we will definitely be exploring. So I'm sort of reserving that for that visit.

KM, 2:33: And how different is Columbia from where you came from?

BY, 2:37: Yes. I came from the Austin area, Manor in particular. It's very flat. The greeneries, not as many trees as one would say. And, of course, lots of development happening in that area. In Columbia, you know, it's all natural, there's a lot of natural, you know, foliage, and just the environment. Everyone is so particular about maintaining just a nice clean environment. And I mean, it's great and I have to say again, the people in Columbia, the friendliest I've ever seen, I've ever interacted with.

KM, 3:14: Before coming to Columbia, you were the chief operations officer in Texas's Manor Independent School District. So what spurred you to take the next step and move to Missouri?

BY, 3:25: So a couple of things. One, you know, I wanted to become, I decided that it's time to be a superintendent. I'd spent approximately eight years as an assistant superintendent. So I started looking at different areas and looking at opportunities. And when I came across Columbia, the area was very much like the areas I lived in. In Lubbock, Texas, we had Texas Tech University, a college town. In Manor, although it's a little, it's probably 10 minutes away from University of Texas, it still had, you know, the trappings of a college environment. And so coming to Columbia for me was just a natural fit. And, you know, also looking at the innovations that existed within the school district, because that's what I love is being able to challenge scholars in ways they have not been challenged before and provide unique opportunities so they all can, you know, grow and be able to be all that they can be. And those have high priorities for me and for me, personally, as scholars as number one, it's very evident that that was very evident, coming into Columbia that our scholars are number one.

KM, 4:37: And so you were born in Trinidad and Tobago. Can you tell us about your upbringing and how that led to you arriving in the U.S.?

BY, 4:45: Yes. I would say there's some things that, you know, I can't explain. But I know that it started with being on the tennis court. My dad played tennis. He was a school teacher. Mom was a school teacher. And my older brother and I started playing and we love the sport, started playing every day. And we had a visitor vacationer that came down from Indianapolis. Barbara Nguyen came in to visit and she asked to speak with my dad. And of course, I thought, you know, we were in trouble, we had done something wrong. And when she spoke with my dad, the next thing I know, at age 12, I was on a plane by myself flying into Indianapolis. And from there, we represented their tennis club and flew around the country, Michigan, Ohio. Oh, my gosh, New York, just all over, and we were having great success with tennis and racking up victories and so on. So that started us every summer, we would fly in to Indianapolis, my brother and I. And we would represent the club , and we made a lot of friends in that way. As a matter of fact, I went to New Mexico Military Institute, a junior college, and the reason that I started there was John, and I played together in Michigan. And we played doubles together. And he was going there. And he called me up and said, "Hey, coach is looking for another great player, would you join us from the Caribbean?" And I said, "Absolutely." Because, you know, John and I were great friends. And that started my career in college here in the United States in Roswell, New Mexico. Now, I was not searching for aliens. I was just looking to play tennis and get a college education and, you know, just enjoy life as a young man.

KM, 6:31: Are there any role models and exceptional leaders in your life that you look up to?

BY, 6:38: I had a slew of them. But I would say one that has recently come into my life was my past superintendent, Dr. Andre Spencer. He's currently the superintendent in Manor ISD, and he took scholars to another level. Looking at how he did it and learning from him over the past, you know, two years that I was with him it put a whole— it affirmed, first of all, what I believed in. But I also saw ways that you can actually foster that level of development for a scholar. So absolutely I learned a lot, and we still stay in very close contact, and certainly enjoy that, but a great admiration for Dr. Spencer.

KM, 7:25: That's great. And so you've been an educator now for more than 30 years. What led you to pursuing education as a career path?

BY, 7:36: Yes, I have to go back a bit. I started off in geology. I was a good friend of a gentleman by the name of Dr. Keith Rowley. He was head of National Quarrying and Mining Division in Trinidad and Tobago. He's now the prime minister. And he had his doctorate in, I believe it was geophysics. And my last day on the island, we were talking and he says, "Go study geology, then come home." I said, "That sounds great," because I had some interest in rocks. But coming into Texas Tech, after I left New Mexico, I went to Texas Tech on a tennis scholarship, started studying geology. And through an interaction I had with a special needs scholar in a volunteer camp, I had a change of heart and my interaction with one special needs scholar in particular changed my whole trajectory in my education. And I quickly knew in my heart that's what I wanted to become, was a teacher, and never looked back. I did achieve the geology degree, got my teaching certificate and started teaching. And I had the best time. I think I enjoyed my science classrooms more than my scholars did. But what I saw, what was very revealing is that all scholars have genius within. And as an educator, it's up to us to pull that genius out, to see that genius grow. That's why I refer to my students as scholars because there's untapped potential in every single scholar. There is. We have to just pull that out of them.

KM, 9:12: Yeah, I even like the way that you say "scholar." I'm not sure that I'm used to many people in education referring to students as scholars. What drives you even to use that word?

BY, 9:26: Yes, because of the potential that I see. And I look at students not just as a sit and get, not just to receive information, but to interact with that information. But where that information, that learning goes, it's all up to the individual student. And so many times what for me was important was to get our students to understand that they can take that learning to the next level. And so I see scholars, I call each one scholars because we don't know where that learning is gonna take place. I mean, we have, even currently here at in Columbia, we have graduates of Hickman that have gone on and done magnificent things and have come up with great things, you know. We look at the Walmart chain, we look at, you know, what's it, CarFax and so on, that had some origins here. And that's what I see, I see untapped potential. Something else that also changed my perspective: I would receive scholars that were perhaps had a little trouble in other classes, and they come into my classroom, and the first thing they understood is respect that, you know, I expected them to respect me as a teacher. I also gave them their respect. And I also encourage them to explore and to learn in different ways and to be able to demonstrate their learning through different medium. And all of a sudden, what I've noticed happening there is the scholars that perhaps were struggling saw it. My mind was made up even then. Another important part of my educational pathways, when I became a principal. I took over an elementary school called Al's Elementary School. Al's was a school with over 90% poverty. And what was happening there was that scholars were not performing academically. I was there for 13 years, seven of which we became a recognized campus in the state of Texas. The remaining five, we were an exemplary campus, meaning that we were at the top. And the reason for that is just getting to scholars to believe in themselves and to see that they are number one. And once they believe that, once they embrace that, we saw it academically to being a top school, not only in our district, but also in the state.

KM, 11:59: So it's this idea of believing in the potential and allowing that potential to guide the students forward?

Yearwood in the booth 1.jpeg

Brian Yearwood speaks with Katelynn McIlwain in the Vox office.

BY, 12:05: Yes, absolutely. You have to truly believe it and expect it. You can't just say it, but you have to live it. You have to let the scholars know, this is what I truly believe in you and you don't accept anything less.

KM, 12:23: So I know that in addition to potential and fostering this idea of scholars' scholarship, another part, important part of your leadership style is collaboration. Would you like to talk to us a little bit more about that?

BY, 12:41: Yes. I always believe in that two can accomplish twice as much as one. And by saying that, when we collaborate, we are able to have that interchange of ideas, and result in a net gain. So in education, what I encourage — where it started from is having our scholars collaborate on interdisciplinary units, units that crossed over, from English to math, science and social studies and so on. There was a mix that started happening, and watching scholars collaborate on how to problem solve led to growth. I remember our first unit that we did, as a teacher, bringing the principal to tears because she did not expect our scholars to come up with projects and to come up with such problem-solving abilities that they demonstrated, and it just blew her away. And leading forward to me being a leader, although I'm a leader, it's important that I collaborate, that I collaborate and I listen to and work well with others. As a principal, the teachers were the ones that were driving the train, I called it. I just held on, and they knew that, and they were able to take risk, and they were able to explore and become innovative and I encouraged them. Playing it now as a superintendent, it's key that I collaborate with our community, our parents, listening to our scholars, listening to our leaders, listening to, I have a great cabinet, listening to our staff members. Because they may have a perspective, that may be different to something that I'm thinking about. But guess what? Their perspective may work, may be even better than what I'm doing. And I recognize that. And so I truly believe in the spirit of collaboration. I think that's the beauty of our world. If we can talk to each other and learn from each other, we could be even further along in our development. And I encourage our scholars to do that so they can make the world a better place, not only for themselves, but also for us as we move forward.

KM, 14:56: So what traits in a person do you think exemplify leadership when you think of a leader?

BY, 15:02: The word that comes to mind is first of all, servant. Serving. Putting others first. Being able to recognize strengths and weaknesses and foster strengths, and being able to help to circumvent or help to be able to grow someone from areas of weakness. Throughout my entire career, I've been considered what is called a turnaround educator. That means being able to take a classroom, a school district, and being able to foster growth. And part of that is because of being a servant leader and listening to others and just letting others understand that yes, I may have a title that allows me to be in a certain supervisory capacity, but when it comes to the table, when it comes to having discussions and collaboration, I'm here to listen, and I'm here to foster great ideas that would come from others and just serving.

KM, 16:06: So when it comes to leadership, you see service, you see collaboration, you see tapping into untapped potential within the scholars that you work with. Are there any challenges that you've had to overcome as you take this approach to education?

BY, 16:25: Yes, well, you know, there's some that may not have experienced it. I think truly everyone believes in it, but there's some that may not have experienced it. And so, you know, just getting all to believe that we truly have scholars before us. I think that, you know, presents certain challenges in it. But I must say that, here in Columbia, I really don't see that as being a problem, because we have such a phenomenal staff. I have visited every school in the district, and every classroom I've walked into everywhere I've seen this hard-working, dedicated staff members that just bring about the best in scholars. I see scholars smiling. I see our scholars, you know, interacting. One place that I went to that just warmed my heart was our Pre-K program. I went to the building to just see what was going on. And they were all, you know, just so happy. And although they were wearing their mask and so on, not a problem. They were just some of the happiest scholars that I've seen interacting with each other and, you know, interacting with the teacher. And it was just, you know, just phenomenal. So, again, not really challenges, but just being able to just tweak, you know, just a couple of things to ensure that our scholars continue to thrive and grow, and they are growing in Columbia.

KM, 17:53: And so in general, I know that it's kind of a tense moment right now, within education and a lot of public school systems. There's just a lot of concern I think among people about what's being taught. And I wanted to know, you know, what do you think are some of the problems that all public school systems are facing right now that you want to address?

BY, 18:13: Sure. Well, you know, people want answers. And so people, you know, our community, someone may be asking more questions than before. And, you know, with social media, you know, definitely being a major tool, there's a lot of discussion going on, and a lot of, you know, questions coming out. What I see happening is the ability to communicate and to communicate in a truthful manner and being transparent. So, as we look at, you know, what's going on, I think that this needs to be open, honest communication. And with the understanding that we're not perfect, you know, I've yet to see what is called a perfect school system. But, you know, in Columbia we have a school system that's willing to grow and to listen, and to get better and stronger. I think that that, in and of itself, allows us to deal with, you know, the pressures that are mounting. And I think other school districts are dealing with that too. You know, the definite questioning, I would say of our bio community members. I think that in of itself has presented some unique challenges to some, but I go back to let's communicate. And then, above all, let's keep our scholars as a number one priority. Let's keep talking about what is best for scholars. What does reading look like? How are they doing in math and science, social studies, in the fine arts, which are also very important? In the career technical education world? How is that evolving? I think, you know, we've gotten a bit away from those intense discussions. But for me in Columbia, as a superintendent, as long as we are putting as a school district our scholars first, then I think we'll be fine. And I know we're doing that every day.

KM, 20:26: So we'd like to take some time to learn more about what you do in your personal time when you're not working with the scholars and Columbia Public Schools. So you were a tennis champion, when you lived in Trinidad and Tobago. What got you into the sport?

BY, 20:42: Just the love of the sport itself, my brother and my dad played some tennis, and my brother and I just started playing, because we'd follow him to the courts. And we just started playing, and we loved it, so we played every day. And then from that we entered tournaments, and we started winning. And of course with the victory, you know, it became even more exciting. So we just played every single day and thoroughly enjoy it. As matter of fact, my brother still plays more than me. He's actually a tennis coach. He graduated from Miami in Ohio with I believe a degree in chemistry, but he still coaches. He is from Trinidad and Tobago; his house is there. And I think today, he's in North Carolina. They invited him up to do some coaching camps for some of the junior players. So that was in our life. And for me, although I don't get to play as much, occasionally I do play tennis. And my intention going forward is to learn about pickleball. I understand that that's very big here. And there's a young man, he's an assistant principal at one of the schools that says once the weather gets better, we will be out playing pickleball. And I look forward to that. Other hobbies, you know, it's just being able to go out and just enjoy the atmosphere, being able to eat and just sit and enjoy what's all around us in Columbia. I think that the environment is conducive to relaxation. And, you know, it's a great environment for us.

KM, 22:15: So I know that some other interests that you have are cars and planes. You've also expressed an interest in flying planes, working on cars. When did that start? What do you think sparked your interest?

BY, 22:27: Well, several years ago, I was helping a friend of mine; he had some car trouble. And, you know, he just asked me if I would help him. And I did. I didn't know a whole lot about cars, but going through the process, I started enjoying fixing things and seeing things get better and working better. And so after I finished with that, I started working on my own projects. And I started, you know, I'd buy a car that perhaps people would ask for it to be taken off the road and turned it into a gem. My last one was a Corvette that I bought and restored. And I would get lots of compliments on it, especially when I had, you know, out on the road and things like that. So it was just, you know, something to take me away, and allow me to, you know, just enjoy another aspect of life. So, you know, it's one that I thoroughly enjoy. Not as much time to do that now that I'm a superintendent, but definitely one that I'm sure I'll be getting back to one day. And you mentioned flying. Yes, I was working on my pilot's license. My plan was to fly home to Trinidad and Tobago. I don't think I will do that, even if I have my license, too complication, too many complicated cross winds and so on. But I was working on my pilot's license, and it basically started as a challenge. We started an aviation program at my school where I was a principal. I wanted our scholars to be exposed to another level of innovation. And so the teacher that I asked, a part of it was he had to go out and get his pilot's license. So in a staff meeting, he said, "Well, I'm going to start this program." And he talked about it and he said he's going to work on his pilot's license, he's going to fly and then he challenged me. He says, "Since I'm going to do this, I'm challenging Dr. Yearwood to also get his pilot's license." And not wanting to turn away from a challenge, I started flying. I never looked back. I thoroughly loved it.

KM, 24:30: I like the pursuit of scholarship now taking it up into the sky.

BY, 24:24: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely, no, no. Our scholars we would get them to go flying we'd have of course professional pilots and so on with their parents’ permission and they would get to go up in single engine planes and fly around the area in Lubbock, Texas. And it just, you know, opened up the eyes because many had never been in a plane before. So it was just another way of bringing learning and innovation. As he talked about, you know, physics, the laws of physics and flying and so on, so, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing that happen.

KM, 25:08: So we've mostly talked about your work and your hobbies. But how do you like to spend time with your family?

BY, 25:14: For us? It's movie night. You know, my wife, she's an RN here in Columbia, and, again, thoroughly enjoying that. And so we just like to just enjoy a good movie, you know? Not horror, obviously. I don't do horror.

KM, 25:33: That's awesome, but no horror movies for you.

BY, 25:35: No. No horror movies. No I just, you know, I like to see pleasantries.

KM, 25:42: Totally understandable I'm also not a fan of the scary movies. I get nightmares. I can't do it. Well, one of my last questions here that I wanted to ask: What are you looking forward to most as you continue working at Columbia Public Schools?

BY, 26:21: I look forward to raising the bar, the academic bar for all scholars. I look forward to further interactions with our community, with our parents, our staff, teachers. Because so far, it's been very, very positive. And I look forward to listening and really hearing what's going on out there and how can we get better and stronger, but continuing to make our scholars our number one priority and raising the bar for all scholars. That is huge for me. And I will always say if I can leave a legacy that says, "Well, he was a superintendent that truly inspired scholars and was able to lift the educational bar here," I would be very satisfied with that.

KM, 27:13: Awesome. Anything I missed that you'd like to add?

BY, 27:18: No, not at this time. I'm just, you know, loving being in Columbia and look forward to many years here and even retiring here in Columbia.

KM, 27:30: It's good to hear. Dr. Brian Yearwood thanks for joining us.

GC, 27:40: Well, class is dismissed. Thanks so much for joining us. If you're yearning to earn some extra credit, be sure to check out the rest of our Vox Voice episodes for more content straight from the voices of Columbia.

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