T.A. Dugger principal retires after 27 years in education

By Julie Fann
star staff

For Richard Culver, 54, who has been T.A. Dugger's principal for the past seven years, humor is the key to being a good teacher. "Fortunately, I'm very athletic, and when I got down on the floor and stood on my head, kids didn't forget something like that. You must have a strategy for every page you teach," he said.
   After working in education for 27 years, Culver's career will come to an end June 7, but he has a plethora of plans. "I bought my fishing license, so that first Monday after I retire I plan to be at frog level trout fishing," he said. Culver also plans to dedicate much of his time to his favorite hobby, refinishing and selling oak, antique furniture. "I love going to auctions. I'm starting to get into E-Bay, selling a lot of small, collectible things."
   Prior to becoming T.A. Dugger's principal, Culver taught seventh-grade math at the school for 16 years, a subject he said he dearly loves. "Math is the only subject I know of that trains your brain to think. I thought math was the only reason students came to school. Matter of fact, I told them that's the only reason they came to school," he said.
   While pursuing his B.S. degree in elementary education at East Tennessee State University, Culver was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam war. After two years of military service, he returned to Elizabethton and finished his undergraduate program, then pursued a master's degree in administration. Culver taught math at Johnson County Middle School for three years and Keenburg Elementary School for eight years prior to teaching at T.A. Dugger.
   As principal of T.A. Dugger, Culver said he has seen much-needed cosmetic improvements to the school's building. However, he believes his greatest achievement has been to focus more on the teaching of reading and writing. "For this age group, reading and writing are extremely, extremely important," he said. Culver said teachers now focus on the six effective traits of writing by holding several workshops. "Mainly, we've tried to teach our teachers that you can teach without a book. I think any teacher that's been in the business for some time could get by without a textbook, because they are a textbook," Culver said.
   Culver explained that, in teaching grammar, rather than having students read sentences and underline parts of speech, grammar is integrated into whatever is being taught. "Whatever they're teaching, they're not turning to page 233 and drawing one line under the noun and two lines under the verb," he said. To more effectively teach reading, the school has abandoned traditional literature textbooks and has, instead, expanded its collection of novels and poetry. "Most of the stories in literature textbooks are really boring for kids," Culver said.
   Every year, eighth-graders at T.A. Dugger go to Washington, D.C., for an educational field trip. This year's excursion will be Culver's 25th. "I will miss this trip. Those kids learn a lot. You just cannot walk into the air and space museum in Washington and not learn something. You cannot walk down the Mall toward the capitol building and not feel something," he said. The school will be taking 141 students to Washington this year.
   Culver said his true life legacy are his three children, Matt, 25, Carrie, 24, and Drew, 20. Matt has a degree in architecture from the University of Tennessee and is now backpacking across Europe. Carrie also graduated from UT with a degree in exercise science, and Drew is a UT sophomore. Culver's wife, Becky Vaught Culver, is a nurse at the V.A. Hospital in Johnson City.
   Culver said he has spent his entire life within a two- to three-block radius of T.A. Dugger. He attended Calvary Baptist Church as a child, worked as a paper boy on G, I, and K Streets, and lived just two blocks from the school. His father was an employee at North American Rayon Corporation.
   When asked what the sign of a good teacher is, Culver said, "You gotta know the subject; You gotta have classroom control, but, mainly, you've got to have passion for teaching. I'm not sure I learned about passion until I became principal," he said.