TOSS March Feature on Dr. Lyle Ailshie

“Those who want to be a servant leader may take time to appreciate the view once ascending the mountain, but the sense of accomplishment comes from the journey upward.”


Dr. Lyle Ailshie has been involved professionally in education for 33 years. This is his 3rd year as superintendent in Kingsport, following 17 years in Greeneville City Schools (12 as superintendent and 5 as assistant superintendent) Originally Dr. Ailshie had no intentions of becoming an educator. After graduating from college, he began working in business. “I was offered a teaching position at the school I graduated from in South Carolina. It also included some coaching duties and was enticing. Since I was then single and living with my parents, I thought, why not give it a try and see what it was like. Needless to say, I fell in love with working with young people and that is still what drives me today, even though my direct contact with students isn’t what it was when I was teaching.”

When Dr. Ailshie was teaching, his favorite subject to teach was math. “Math was always like a puzzle to me and I enjoyed finding different ways to get to the correct answer. This can only be done if you have a good conceptual knowledge of mathematics and I enjoyed helping students really understand the principles behind their work instead of just learning a recipe to get the quickest answer. You really knew students “had it” when they started visualizing the problems and their faces lit up.” Just as seeing a student’s face light up with recognition and accomplishment is an important thing to a teacher, I asked Dr. Ailshie to share something important he learned from one of his students or one of his teachers.

Like most who have been teachers, I have saved a variety of things over the years – letters, plaques, cross-stitch items, and various gifts. Back in the days that such things weren’t an issue, I received a beautiful pocket knife from a student. It has a different colored bone handle. While it is a very nice knife and I have it safely stored still today, the thing that I will always remember is the look on the student’s face when she gave it to me. I was fortunate to be one of her favorite teachers and she had done odd chores and saved up money to buy me the knife. I think she was as proud of it as I was. That was one of the first times I realized how important it is for students to learn to give. Even those from limited financial backgrounds can learn and get a sense of empowerment from giving. They are the ones usually on the receiving end, and to see the sense of pride they have from being able to help others is special. It is also a great motivator for creating a vision of a future where they can do more of this.

Although, there are many rewards when it comes to education, students also face many challenges. I asked Dr. Ailshie to talk about the difficulties/rewards of having a good education now vs. when he was a student.

There are many more options for students now and the bar has been raised regarding the expected education level. While college, going into the workforce, or enlisting in the military were the primary options for me, there are now those plus community college, technical centers, and a growing number of career and technical programs at both the high school and post-secondary level. I believe it is more difficult for today’s students to know the right path because regardless of the desired job, it most likely requires something beyond high school. [However], there is also much more stress on today’s students due to increased competition for jobs and to be able to have a career that is both meaningful and generates the finances to support a family. Jobs are evolving faster than ever before and more are being out-sourced. We are seeing this even in the medical field where someone overseas can interpret x-rays less expensively than someone in the U.S. Students have to be better and more agile learners due to the probable need to change jobs several times during their lifetime.

Dr. Ailshie is looking forward to the progress occurring in his district right now. He shared with me about some new programs being implemented and how they would benefit the students.

I am tremendously excited about the implementation of our technology vision. We have started down the road of a 1:1 mobile device initiative that will ultimately lead to students in grades 4 – 12 having their own device for school and home use. We began with our middle school and this fall all students in grade 6 – 12 will have a device. It really isn’t a technology plan as much as it is a learning plan. We know we need to have better ways to personalize instruction and to provide a challenging and engaging curriculum and the effective use of technology gives us the best avenue to success. I am also excited about the continued implementation of our non-traditional high school program, named D-B EXCEL. This program is a blended learning program off-site from our high school in order to create a smaller and more flexible learning environment. Students have more scheduling options, can choose from a variety of learning formats, and are able to better juggle personal demands and desires. We have approximately 100 students already in the program and have a waiting list. We are looking for a larger facility that will allow the program to grow to around 300 students or more.

After inquiring about tips or advice that Dr. Ailshie might share with a new superintendent, he talked about “several key learnings that are important.”

. . . listening to your staff, knowing when to delegate vs. when to be more hands-on, be open and honest regardless of whether what you have to share is good news or bad, and to keep your board up-to-date. I would also share that there are many good managers but it is quite different to be a leader, particularly an instructional leader.

At least as important as the thoughts above, I would stress that it is vital to create a vision for the school system. This needs to be a shared vision that the staff, board, and community will support. Once a vision is in place, a strategic plan must be developed so guide the system toward that vision. I have found that some new superintendents don’t know how to start this process and it is extremely important. As Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you are going you might end up someplace else.”

 What does Dr. Ailshie do when he’s not working?

 He enjoys University of Tennessee football games. Going to games “is something that my brothers and I do to stay in touch.” He also likes to read. When I asked him what his favorite book was, like most avid readers it was a difficult question to answer. “I suppose I would have to say my most favorite book is the Bible. Regardless of the situation, you can always find what you need, whether it be direction, advice, comfort, encouragement, etc. Beyond that, I would probably say that any type of biography or historical book is something I am always interested in as I choose a pleasure read. I am usually reading a professional book and a pleasure book at the same time and find myself switching between the two based on the other things happening at the time.” Dr. Ailshie also enjoys spending time with family when he’s not working.

 “I am at the point in my career and personal life that the most enjoyable thing away from work is spending time with my two granddaughters … My favorite thing is doing activities with [them], they are full of energy and are a constant reminder of why I have spent the last 33 years in education.”