Education and elective office have found common ground at Spotsylvania High School, where three public officials from Caroline County teach.
Jeff Black is a U.S. history and Advanced Placement U.S. history teacher and serves on the Caroline Board of Supervisors.
Shawn Kelley, who teaches geography, Advanced Placement geography, Advanced Placement government and also teaches in the Commonwealth Governor’s School, serves on the Caroline School Board.
Bobby Orrock, who teaches agricultural science, is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, representing the 54th District, which includes parts of Caroline and Spotsylvania counties.
While Black and Kelley are in their first terms in office, Orrock is the veteran of the group and has been in House since 1989.
In the Fredericksburg area, only Walker–Grant Middle School and Spotsylvania High have a trio of elected officials who are educators. Teachers with dual roles can provide unique learning opportunities for their students, they say.
Black, Kelley and Orrock said their students all know about their elected positions.
“It’s a subject that definitely comes up with experiences we talk about,” Black said, citing history lessons he teaches on westward expansion and boom towns.
He said the class got into a discussion about what makes something a boomtown, and he used fracking as an example of how it has recently created boomtowns in North Dakota and Pennsylvania. He connected that to the discussions about the potential for fracking in the Taylorsville basin south and east of Fredericksburg.
“I brought up that it’s a possibility around here, local governments around here may have to deal with that particular issue,” he said.
Black has been a teacher for 16 years, 12 of those in Spotsylvania County.
When he decided to run for office in 2011, juggling a campaign and school was a challenge, and sometimes, he says, more intense than after he was actually elected.
Now, he balances supervisors meetings with school work more efficiently. Sometimes it means not getting a lot of sleep after a late meeting.
“There have been meetings, I’ve gotten home at 12:30 a.m. and my alarm goes off at 5—it’s a short night,” he said.
He’s never missed school after a late Board of Supervisors meeting, though.
He compared those hours to that of coaches who also teach. Even if there is a late game, they have to be back in the classroom the next morning.
Kelley is in his 13th year of teaching, and works with students at various levels. He said he gives his students a behind-the-scenes look at how government works.
“I give examples about times in parliamentary procedure, when you make a motion, who can comment,” he said.
He tells them about “tactics used by politicians, especially during an election year.”
Kelley said he tells students about “the difficulty of communicating what your real intent was when stuff gets passed.”
Questions in his classes range from inquiries about snow day decisions to what’s happening in the news.
Orrock has been a teacher for 36 years, and for 25 of those he’s been an elected official.
He has to make special arrangements for his classes each year for the General Assembly sessions in Richmond.
The legislature convenes in January each year and takes Orrock out of the classroom for either 30 or 60 days, depending on the year.
He lines up his own substitute, and until last year, he had the same one for years.
On the weekends, he checks grades.
His students know what the year will be like, up front.
“At the beginning of the year, I tell them my life story,” he said.
He warns them that even though he’ll be gone between six weeks and two months, they’ll be doing the same thing as if he was there.
He takes his school responsibilities seriously.
“I try to guard my school time very jealously and sometimes don’t go to other functions,” he said.
For example, he recently missed a Chamber of Commerce breakfast because it was during school hours.
“I tell them I’m a schoolteacher and have a responsibility to those kids, as well,” he said.
Because he teaches agriculture, he doesn’t get too many questions from students about his role as a delegate.
Over the past few years, he has been asked about hunting season, but it’s more the exception than the rule.
BEING ON THE OTHER SIDE
Black said that being a supervisor and a teacher allows him to see both sides of a lot of different issues, especially ones dealing with schools.
“As a supervisor, you see the other side of it,” he said. “You’re the one who has to charge the taxes. I understand, as a schoolteacher, when you don’t have enough.”
He said he can empathize with issues such as leaking roofs and teacher salaries.
“You can’t always give the schools everything they are asking for,” he said. “At the same time, you can’t not give the schools money, either. There’s a balancing act—it’s a constant balancing act.”
For Kelley, it’s a learning experience as a teacher and seeing the other side of things as a School Board member.
“As a teacher, it’s amazing to see all the stuff that happens at the state level and the county level that has an impact on the classroom,” he said.
And as a School Board member, he brings a teacher’s perspective to the issues.
“I probably have more than a layman’s understanding of what a teacher goes through,” he said.
When Kelley ran for office, he was constantly challenged about his qualifications to be on the School Board. He used his teaching experience to his advantage.
Both Kelley and Black were—and still are—active in the property owners associations in their neighborhoods. That’s what propelled them to run for office.
The Western Caroline District was created for the past election cycle and Black is the first to hold the seat.
Kelley, who represents the Madison District in Caroline County, didn’t have a challenger.
Rusty Davis, the principal of Spotsylvania High School, said all three do a great job keeping their political jobs separate from school.
“When they come to school, they are educators,” he said.