Tony Wood, the newly approved Arkansas Department of Education commissioner, said that while he and his wife do not have children of their own, he has always considered the children whose education comes under his leadership as his kids. When he was superintendent in Searcy, he would tell people he had 39,000 children. Now, by that same mindset, he could say he has 474,995 children.
Wood did not set out to have a career in education — he went to Harding University in Searcy to study biology and business initially — but the right relationships and a little encouragement moved him into the classroom, then up the ladder.
While he was finishing up his degree at Harding, Wood was working as a management trainee at Sherwin-Williams when James A. Martin, a man Wood had worked with and developed a relationship with, invited Wood to join him in working for the Beedeville School District in Jackson County.
Martin was advanced in age at that point, Wood said, but had been a superintendent earlier in his life and had agreed to serve as superintendent of the Beedeville district in the early 1970s. Because of its size, the Beedeville School District was consolidated with the Newport School District in 1985.
Martin remembered Wood’s background in science, and Beedeville’s science teacher had been electrocuted while setting up a house trailer. The school district was 50 miles from Searcy, and Martin, who lived in Searcy, as did Wood, asked Wood if he would drive him to and from the school and take the science-teacher position.
“He said, ‘I don’t have any intention in the world that you would continue to teach school, but the life lessons you will learn in that type of situation will be beneficial,’” Wood said.
Sherwin-Williams had already promised Wood his own store once he graduated, but he decided to follow Martin to Beedeville, where Wood taught chemistry, biology and math for three years.
Wood said he has learned multiple lessons in his time as an educator, and — like Martin suggested — they do not necessarily have to do with math equations or chemical compounds.
“The bottom line is really simple,” he said. “From my perspective, it’s all about relationships. It’s about relationships with your kids in regard with trying to give them a good foundation. It’s about relationships with your peers that you work with daily. It’s about your relationships with your supervisors, who guide you daily.”
Wood said throughout his career he has identified three things that he strives for and wants to see in others: honesty, integrity and work ethic.
“Honesty entails a full and complete answer. You don’t tell the truth until you tell all the truth,” he said. “And I learned work ethic from my dad. I wasn’t familiar with an eight-hour day.”
After his time in Beedeville, Wood taught chemistry and math in Judsonia for one year before taking a job in Kensett, where he assumed the superintendency at age 30. He was at Kensett for 14 years, then went to the Little Rock school district as deputy superintendent under Ruth Steele. When he left Little Rock, Wood went back to Searcy, where he served as superintendent for 18 years.
Wood said he still misses the classroom, and at one point, he looked into teaching while serving as superintendent, but both roles are too demanding for one person.
“You probably can’t do fairness to the classroom work with the time you’re there,” he said. “I like the classroom. I didn’t go looking for superintendency; it just sort of happened.”
Wood still lives in Searcy, but he has made the daily trip to Little Rock to work for the Arkansas Department of Education as deputy commissioner for the past four years. He was recently chosen to replace Tom Kimbrell as commissioner, who Wood said exemplified honesty, integrity and a strong work ethic.
“I’ve worked with some really dedicated educators,” Wood said. “Dr. Kimbrell would stand at the top of the list.”
Wood said he and Kimbrell would feed off of each other and get absorbed in their work. For Wood, the schedule has not changed much with his new job. He said he gets to the gym at 5 a.m., leaves the gym at 6, gets to work at 7 and tries to be home by 7 p.m.
Looking forward to his new role, Wood said, he has dreams of the educational system in the state that would take awhile to complete.
“I’m pragmatic enough to realize that the kind of change that I would talk about would be a heavy lift and a lengthy process,” he said. “I’d just love to see things simplified. I say that for what it would provide for our teachers in the schools, what it would provide for our district administrators, what it would provide for our staff here. The complexity in which we live each day is pretty interesting.”
As he assumes the roll of commissioner, Wood said, he is encouraged to be working under Gov. Mike Beebe. The two have a unique relationship, as Wood saw Beebe’s child go through school in Searcy. Wood said the governor genuinely supports the state’s primary education.
“He doesn’t just politicize the talk about education,” Wood said. “He actually, fundamentally, in every way, supports providing for our kids.”
Staff writer Angela Spencer can be reached at (501) 244-4307 or firstname.lastname@example.org.