MNPS Voices: Randall Norton

MNPS Voices: Randall Norton, Personal Finance and ACT Prep Teacher, Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Magnet High School
Posted on 05/03/2023
Randall Norton

Randall Norton’s childhood and other personal and educational experiences contributed to developing his grit to become the successful educator he is today. Randall Norton

Norton’s maternal grandparents were farmers in Athens, Alabama, raising cotton, soybeans and tobacco for a living. They lived on a typical modest farm in the countryside with no indoor plumbing, with open windows and fans during the summer months and wood burning for a heat source during the winter and for cooking year-round.

“Nothing about my childhood was easy – but there was always faith, love and family. To escape the harshness of the environments I lived in, my siblings and I would spend most of our summers with my grandparents on the farm,” said Norton, who is finishing his fourth year as a teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Magnet School.

That time on the farm taught Norton many lessons, but more than anything, “it taught me about the importance of a work ethic,” he said. “Every abled body had to contribute, including the children, which meant getting up early to work in the fields to harvest the crops before it got too hot. Another lesson that I learned was about being frugal and not wasteful – to be thankful and appreciative for everything that I am blessed with and the importance of not wasting opportunities.”

To pursue a better life away from the countryside, Norton’s mother followed her older sister to Nashville. Norton attended multiple MNPS schools, including Park Avenue, Richland, Moses McKissack, Bailey, Meigs and finally East High School, from which he graduated in 1982.

A Mother’s Inspiration

Norton’s mother was his foremost source of inspiration to succeed in life. She understood the importance of education for herself and her children as a viable path to break the cycle of poverty. She worked two to three jobs while also going to school part-time in the evenings to work on an associate degree at Nashville Tech Community College.

She would eventually earn that degree, get a much better job, and within a couple of years, “we would live in a single-dwelling house for the first time as I started my junior year of high school,” Norton said. “Again, my mother was modeling important life lessons for me about hard work, education and sacrifice.”

In addition to his mother, Norton credits several other sources of inspiration to pursue a career in education, starting with being a volunteer leader of the teen ministry at his church. Being able to help young people’s lives in various ways was a joyful experience.

Another inspiration was his son. When he was 18 months old, he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. This led to several medical procedures and to him attending weekly physical, occupational and speech therapy.

“Over a period of participating and observing the therapy multiple days a week, I began to notice the resiliency of him and other kids receiving therapy and how hard they work each day,” Norton said. “Something in my heart was moved, and I began to question if I was fulfilling my true purpose. Something made me want to be an advocate for students."

Finally, there were two men who helped to mentor Norton and played an important role in his life. They were police officers Sanders and Carter, whose office just happened to be in the unit behind where Norton lived. From the time the officers began their walking patrol, Norton said he went against the grain and developed a relationship with them.

“This wasn’t the most popular thing in a housing project where lots of illegal activities take place. Many people in the neighborhood called me a snitch or wondered why I hung out with those officers,” he said. “I didn’t have the answers to those questions at 10 years old; but I do know they taught me so many lessons that likely helped me to make the right choices later in my teen years. I also felt special because they would take me to lunch or come to my football games.”

Discovering Books – and the Bookmobile Driver

When the city started to send a Bookmobile (mobile library) to Norton’s neighborhood once a week, he met the driver, Mr. Jackson, an African American man.

This was important to Norton, since his father wasn’t around when he was growing up. To see an African American man promoting the importance of reading books inspired him to want to read more. But more importantly, the books allowed Norton’s imagination to escape the limitations of his neighborhood.

“They took me around the world and allowed me to see things that I otherwise wouldn’t see – they broadened my lens. This caused me to have a love for reading for the rest of my life and has been the inspiration to me being a lifelong learner.”

Norton was quite involved in various activities while in school: sports, band, chorus, forensics, school government, Dean’s List, 4-H club and Police Athletic League. During his senior year, Norton was voted “Most School Spirit.” And he started taking college courses while still in high school.

“So, before there was the Dual Enrollment program as we know it today, 40 years ago I was dual enrolled,” he said.

Norton then attended Tennessee State University and graduated in 1986 with a bachelor's degree in business administration and a minor in marketing. He said he also was shaped “in so many positive ways” in those years by his time in the INROADS program, which provided tutoring, mentoring, leadership development, communication skills training, career training, etiquette and other skills as well as what became a four-year internship at Third National Bank (which became SunTrust and is now Truist).

He later worked at Kroger, Frito-Lay and Bridgestone-Firestone before starting his career as an educator in 2008 at MNPS’s Maplewood High School. He also taught at Johnson Alternative School before moving to a school in Williamson County.

When he returned to MNPS in 2018, he taught at Head Magnet Middle School for a year and then moved to MLK, where he has taught African American Studies, Contemporary Issues and, most recently, Personal Finance and ACT Prep. In 2010, he earned a master’s degree in school administration and supervision, followed by a master’s degree in special education in 2012. Finally, in 2014, he earned an educational specialist degree in administration and supervision – all from TSU.

While Norton has had his administrator license for several years, “I have put on hold my desire to become an administrator after solely raising my son over the last six years,” he said. “I knew the demands of being an administrator would conflict with being a parent of a son with disabilities.”

Meeting Students Where They Are, Then Lifting Them Up

Norton believes having an enjoyable, successful career as an educator stems from being passionate about his profession and meeting his students right where they are while trying to help elevate them over a period of time.

“Yes, I set clear expectations, but I try to understand that I am dealing with teenagers. And while I would like them to think like mature adults, I have come to understand that most don’t,” he said. “So, I must be willing to repeat myself no matter how clearly I think I communicated something to them.”

Also, he believes being accommodating is fundamental.

“At the risk of sounding like a cliché, I just don’t sweat the small stuff. One of the big takeaways from the pandemic was the importance of being accommodating. You have to be a Swiss Army knife, be flexible and a jack of all trades. We are no longer just teachers of content, but we wear so many hats.”

Last but not least, Norton believes in the importance of looking after oneself by implementing a mindfulness strategy to be a more effective educator.

“I have to take care of myself,” he said, “or I can’t be the best version of myself for my students or anyone.”

Outside of his busy schedule at MLK, Norton enjoys sports, reading, the arts, cooking, fashion and volunteering. He also enjoys home decorating and loves watching HGTV and “judge” shows.

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