Anderson University College of Education
Dr. James (JJ) and Elizabeth Lies: Education as a Calling
JJ and Elizabeth Lies both followed a calling into education.
Recently, JJ moved from public school administration to higher education, preparing future teachers. Elizabeth works to provide a caring environment for elementary school students she sees daily.
Both JJ and Elizabeth credit the Anderson University College of Education for setting expectations high while giving a Christlike example to follow.
How did you first become interested in education?
Elizabeth: I never really had another career goal in mind. My mom was an educator. My grandparents were, also. I think when I was in high school was when I really figured out what I was good at. I remember it was a pre-cal (calculus) class. One of my friends was really struggling and it just seemed so natural to me when I was helping her figure out stuff. I didn’t have to think about how I’m going to help her learn this without telling her the answer; it was just all natural and I loved the feeling of it. I loved when she figured out how to do it on her own—the satisfaction in that. So I guess that was when I realized, “Oh yeah, I think I’d be good at this.” I never really had any other career path in mind, honestly, except education.
JJ: In my senior year of high school, I distinctly remember being ‘voluntold’ to be a teacher by my mom. I didn’t want to do it because I wasn’t going to be a teacher. (Mom) has a business background, but over the years she gravitated towards education. She worked on Wall Street as a banker then she retired. When they came to South Carolina she became involved with education, just volunteering with the school PTO being president. That led to her ultimately becoming the district parenting instructor. She developed that program and the parenting curriculum that she used in Sumter School District. Then that turned into her creating her own consulting business and afterschool tutoring program, where she employed me. She had me working at her business. That's when she says she started to see that I had a natural gift and ability for working with children.
Well, throughout the course of the year, working with the students, I got a firsthand experience of the type of impact and influence teachers and male educators in particular could have on students, especially those students who grew up without male role models or positive male figures in their lives. It had a big impact on some of those students, so after working with those students on and off throughout the school year I decided I wouldn’t want to do anything else with my time but to serve children and do all I could to help them be successful.
How did you discover Anderson University?
Elizabeth: I’m from Belton. We were in Anderson all the time. I spent a lot of time there when I was in elementary school and high school, doing concerts and stuff like that. It was always there. They offered me a full ride and so I took it. The rest is history.
JJ: I had a good friend in high school who was interested in Anderson for a music education. By the time I decided I wanted to teach, it was already March of my senior year. The other college that I was going to, I didn’t want to go there anymore for different reasons, and so I was talking with my friend and he said, “Hey I know this school in the Upstate called Anderson University and I’m going on a visit there.” He was going to check it out and go on a tour. So he invited me to come since I was interested as well. It worked out because he needed a ride up here. So my mom was able to bring us both up. I’ve got a thing about grass. The moment we set foot on campus I saw the beautiful grass. And I was sold.
JJ, you were involved in Call Me MiSTER. How did you get involved in that?
JJ: With Call Me MiSTER, it was their first year on campus. I remember meeting some of the guys on campus and they were fellow African American educators and I’m like “Whoa! Who are they?” Someone introduced me to James Hogue and we just became good friends. We talked throughout the year about the program, what it meant, what the core tenets were, and I felt like it could be a good fit for me with my upbringing, with my parents emphasizing community service and church involvement and the value of education. So all of those things aligned and I decided it was going to be a good thing to be a part of, especially with those men there. They really held strongly to this value of being my brother’s keeper and the idea of iron sharpening iron. If I wanted to be a top notch educator I would need to be in a community with other educators who wanted to be top notch also. So I became a part of Call Me MiSTER.
What do you feel are some ways your Anderson University education has benefited you professionally and in other ways?
Elizabeth: I think it starts with the connection you make, not only with other students but also with your professors. And I think if you go to a bigger school you’re not necessarily going to get that kind of connection. One of our professors in particular, Dr. Meg, had an incredible influence over my life. We keep in contact with her to this day. She’s Aunt Meggie to Jameson and it’s one of those things I didn’t anticipate being such a big part of college. She's just had a huge impact on my life. She’s an education professor and why I became the teacher that I am, but also the spiritual and emotional support she provided. I can ask her anything. I think that’s been the biggest thing that’s made an impact on me, the relationships Anderson can provide.
Handprints was the early childhood education club I was involved with. My junior or senior year I was secretary-treasurer. The biggest impact on me at AU was going to Belize on mission trips with Dr. Meg. I went on four trips when I was a student at AU, then I went back two or three more times after I graduated. I managed to get JJ to go a couple of years ago. So that made a big impact on my life too.
JJ: Like Elizabeth, it's the connections. There are probably still five or six different professors that I keep in touch with on a regular basis, even though some may no longer be at Anderson, we still communicate regularly. They served as great mentors for me.
In a world that is obsessed with leaders having power and authority, Anderson gave me a foundation to focus on influence. Every time I take a new job or move into a new or different role, one of the first questions for me strategically is "How can I use this role to be a light and to be of service?"
I was offered a new position as a college professor at Converse in Spartanburg, so I accepted it after sleeping on it for a night and talking it over with the missus. My main thought was “How can I use this role and this platform to be of service and to be a light?” We talk often about being the only Bible that some people will read. That way of thinking was established at Anderson specifically through mentoring by Dr. Neal.
Elizabeth: The professors, they really exemplify that.
Think back on an ‘aha!’ moment where you were impacting a student or something that gives you the biggest sense of accomplishment.
JJ: When people realize that they have made it one step closer to a goal, when people realize their progression toward success, that gives me a big sense of accomplishment.
Elizabeth: Probably when a kid tells me in some way or another that the library is a safe place for them to be—a safe place for them to be themselves, a safe place for them to be happy or upset or whatever emotion they’re feeling—that’s always my goal. I don’t care what you learn. I don’t care what you come with, but I want to be a safe landing place for you because I think our kids struggle with that in today’s society. The library is a great place to land.
In what ways has the COVID pandemic been a challenge for you as educators?
Elizabeth: I’ve had to switch my perspective from having to teach certain standards, and we have to do certain research, we have to do this and we have to do that. I really switched toward more of a social-emotional approach to what I do in the library. One of the best things about my job is, while I have certain standards I have to teach that are very generic, so I can kind of adapt anything to fit those standards, and I took the pressure off of them to do research, do this, to learn that, to ‘Let’s just talk through these emotions and talk through empathy and compassion and what do those things mean? How can we show that?"
JJ: For me, the biggest challenge has been connectivity, reconnecting students with each other, with our community, with our shared values, reconnecting our adults with one another. I guess the same thing our shared values. The time apart, it could be argued, was necessary. Our relationships were greatly impacted. You know, a school can’t be successful without healthy, vibrant relationships, and when there are weak relationships, there is little trust, and trust is a fabric that holds it all together. So I guess my biggest challenge in a loose sort of way is to weave together the fabric of trust so that our community can thrive again. That’s been our challenge.
What advice would you give to someone considering a career in education?
Elizabeth: My biggest piece of advice would be to take care of yourself, because being in education is a very high-stress job, especially if you go into it because you love your kids. If you don’t take care of yourself, you don’t have anything left to take care of your kids at school. That’s one thing I really struggled with at the beginning of my career. I was so focused on being the best teacher and having all the right lesson plans and all this stuff that I wasn’t taking time for me. You can’t be a great educator, you can't be there for your kids, if you don’t take time for yourself. That would be my biggest piece of advice.
JJ: My biggest piece of advice would be to know who you are and what you want. Education requires you to have a servant’s heart. You have to deal with a lot of different pressures to do different things and be different things. Oftentimes people get burned out—myself included—by giving into the pressures. All the kids really need is somebody who loves them and knows themselves and is comfortable with who they are and what they can do. We don’t need anybody perfect. There’s a lot of pressure in education to always do more, do better, do less of this, more of that, maximize this. We will go into 15 different directions in one school year as far as what our priorities are, based on what the district office or state department hands down to us, but knowing yourself and knowing how to keep the main thing the main thing, that’s my one piece of advice.
Elizabeth: Just do your best, that’s all you can do. At the end of the day, the only thing that the kids care about is to know that you care. They don’t care if you have this awesome activity plan.
JJ: They don’t always remember a lesson but they remember how you treated them.
As a couple, how do you handle both of you working in education?
Elizabeth: We’ve both gotten really good at not bringing everything home all the time. It’s OK to bring a little bit of it home, it’s OK to share your frustration, but I think we’ve gotten good at, or hopefully gotten better at not letting it affect our attitude once we get home, because you can have really good days and you can have really bad days. I think for us it’s important not to bring the bad stuff home. Not that everything’s bad.
JJ: Having healthy friendships and relationships outside of your marriage is important, too. You need your community group, your Bible study group, we need that. I need a night a week to talk with some of the brothers from my church. It may be as simple as we’re all committed to texting each other for an hour or one of our plans this week is to go to the rail trail in Spartanburg and walk. Just the time to commune with others.
Elizabeth: They can pray for you and lift you up.
JJ: There are some conversations I can take to them that are work related that I don’t have to place on Elizabeth’s conscience. Having healthy relationships outside of the marriage is important as well for navigating the fact that there are two educators in the household.