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Ben Darley

New Conway principal becomes positive leader

By Tammy Keith

This article was published May 29, 2016 at 12:00 a.m.

Ben Darley, assistant principal at Conway Junior High School, stands in the courtyard. He has been promoted to principal, and he will begin his new duties in June. Darley, who was a staff sergeant in the Air Force, moved from Texas to Conway nine years ago to be a social-studies teacher.

Ben Darley gets a lot of grief from co-workers about the way his Conway Junior High School office is decorated.

From the werewolf mask that he confiscated from a student to his wife’s edgy artwork, Darley’s space does not shout principal or Air Force veteran.

Yet he is both.

“People think they’re getting one thing, but that’s really not what they’re getting,” he said with a grin. “I have a lot of nonconformity in me.”

The 40-year-old assistant principal has been hired as junior high principal, beginning in June. He is taking the place of Todd Edwards, who accepted the high school principal’s job in Bryant.

Darley took a nontraditional route to get into education. The son of Southern Baptist missionaries, Jack and Barbara Darley, Ben Darley was born in Mobile, Alabama, but his family lived in Japan from the time he was 4 years old until he was 18. It was a freeing environment, he said, because the crime rate was almost zero.

“You could rip and run and go

anywhere you wanted,” he said.

He attended Christian Academy in Japan, where he was not a star student,

although fully capable.

“I was more interested in entertaining, … and I always felt like I could run the class better than the teacher,” he said.

“I had an aha moment when I was a senior,” he said.

The principal informed Darley that once again, he wasn’t chosen for the National Honor Society because his teachers viewed him as “as a negative leader.” That got

Darley’s attention.

He went to Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia because he got a full scholarship as the son of missionaries, and Darley majored in history and political science.

“I thought I wanted to be a lawyer,” he said. His Sunday School teacher, who was also a Clark County circuit judge, let Darley sit in on a couple of trials.

“I had a TV image of people railing away, a you-can’t-handle-the-truth kind of way,” he said.

After seeing that being a lawyer wasn’t that dramatic or interesting, Darley decided to join the Air Force.

“I wanted to serve my country,” he said. “I wanted to travel.”

In 1999, he went to the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, California, for a year-long program.

“You learned Russian kind of like drinking from a fire hose,” he said.

He became a Russian linguist for the Air Force. That’s where the information stops, because as the joke goes, he could tell you, but then he’d have to kill you.

When he tells people that it’s classified, “they’re always amazed,” he said. “They think it was something crazy and interesting or spylike, and

it wasn’t.”

He rarely gets to use his Russian now, except with the occasional student, and he has taught his three children some basic Russian words.

“I joined to do four years in the Air Force, then 9/11 happened, and they wouldn’t let me out,” he said. Darley was stationed in San Antonio, Texas, and he was married to Jeanetta, whom he’d met at OBU.

While he was in the Air Force, he started serving as an interim youth minister at their church, and he said he realized God wanted him to work with children. He got his teaching certificate while he was still in the military.

In 2003, after serving almost five years, he got out of the Air Force and student-taught at a high school in San Antonio. Just like he immediately knew being a lawyer wasn’t for him, he had the opposite reaction to teaching.

“I loved it, absolutely loved it,” he said. “I loved the kids, loved being able to see the light bulb go on, loved being able to help kids make the best decisions.”

Darley got his first teaching job at that high school, where he also coached cross-country and track.

“I never ran till I joined the Air Force; then I fell in love with it at that point and time,” he said. “It became a passion.”

After four years at the school, he and his wife wanted to get back to Arkansas. She was born in Batesville and graduated from Searcy High School, he said. They wanted to be closer to family and away from the oppressive Texas heat.

Darley applied for a social-studies-teacher position in the Conway School District, and he was called on a Monday by then-principal Mickey Siler and was interviewed two days later.

“It was a tremendous blessing, to say the least,” he said. Darley started in 2007-2008 teaching civics in the same building that he is in now, but at that time, it was Conway High School-East, a campus for ninth- and 10th-graders.

Siler, who is director of administrative services in the Sheridan School District, said Darley made a good impression from the start.

“What attracted me to Ben Darley when I read his resume was his military background; he was a linguist, and he was going to teach social studies,” Siler said.

“When I talked to him on the phone — you know how sometimes you get the impression this is the real deal? — I could tell his heart was in the right place,” Siler said.

He said when he interviewed Darley, there was no doubt he was right for the job, and when Darley started teaching, “it confirmed it.”

He said Darley’s knowledge of Russian, as well as his familiarity with other languages, came in handy, too.

The district implemented a reduction in force, and Darley, as one of the last ones hired, lost his job, Siler said.

However, Darley was hired as the lead teacher in the Alternative Learning Environment.

“He would have been my first choice, even if he hadn’t got caught up in all that reduction in force,” Siler said. “At-risk students — Ben had a way of talking to them and making them believe in themselves.”

Darley said teaching in the Alternative Learning Environment was a positive experience.

“It was very educational and broadening, working with at-risk kids,” he said. “Meeting the needs of such a diverse group of kids really gave me a heart for the struggling student.”

When those students come to his office, Darley shares the lesson he learned as a high school senior: “Frequently, it is better to keep your opinions to yourself or express it in a more positive way,” he said.

Darley said he also formed “incredible” relationships with the teachers in the Alternative Learning Environment program.

That was the first time he experienced educational leadership, and he found it to be one of his strengths.

Darley earned his administrator’s license at the University of Central Arkansas, and four years ago, he was hired as assistant principal for the Conway Junior High. His responsibilities have been discipline and the “nuts and bolts of running a building,” as he put it. On this particular day, the air conditioning was out in one classroom, and he’s on the walkie-talkie trying to get someone to take care of it.

As a principal, he can step back from those duties, because his new position is about “focusing more on the vision of the school and overarching guidance.”

He said his goal for the 1,500 eighth- and ninth-graders is to prepare them to be successful at the high school.

The district has completed a school-culture survey, which was given to students, parents and staff.

“We want to use the results to identify where we need to improve as a campus,” Darley said. “Once we have those results, we want to take them and put them in the hands of our teachers. It creates ownership and gives them a voice about where we want to go and how we want to get there.”

Darley said his philosophy of education is that every child can learn, just not in the same way — and that’s one of the bigger challenges of education.

He believes, in his heart of hearts, that doing a good job educating children in the district will improve the community, too — by increasing employment, reducing crime and seeing businesses come that want to plant themselves in Conway.

“I want to make Conway a better place,” he said, adding that he and his wife love the area. “We don’t have any plans of going anywhere.”

His fellow principals and co-workers have made no bones about the fact that they hope his new office will have a more mainstream look.

“It drives them nuts,” he said, laughing.

They shouldn’t count on him suddenly conforming, but he does have a quote from Aristotle and a painting of George Washington that he’ll probably pack, along with the werewolf mask.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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