By SHELLY WILKISON
Haunted by the notion that she may have ignored her calling three decades ago, Vicki Bates will soon turn off the microphone, hang up her whistle and leave hundreds of beloved students at Liberty Hill Intermediate School for the last time in order to pursue it.
“It will be very hard to leave,” she said. “I feel kind of depressed because I know impending retirement means no more kids.”
Ms. Bates, 54, has taught physical education at the Intermediate School for six years. Prior to that, she coached track and basketball and taught advanced English classes at Liberty Hill High School. And before coming to Liberty Hill ISD 14 years ago, she taught English and coached at the high school level in Round Rock, Bastrop, Vidor and Marble Falls — a teaching career that spanned 29 years.
“I tell them, ‘you will always be my kids’, but I don’t know how that’s going to work when I’m gone,” she said.
Throughout her teaching career, Ms. Bates said she has encountered young people struggling with serious life problems who had no one to turn to for help. Along the way, she reached out to many and made a difference, but came to the realization in recent years that she needed to learn how to be more effective.
“I wanted to be able to help them more than I could,” she said. “It was discouraging when I couldn’t find the resources to help a lot of them.
“I think all along I’ve known what I wanted to do, and that’s to counsel. And that’s haunted me all these years,” she said. “They pay me to teach PE classes, but this (counseling) is a second calling.”
Ms. Bates is working on a master’s degree in counseling from Texas State University — a goal she hopes to achieve by August 2014. She can then be licensed as a professional counselor (LPC). The advanced degree will be her second master’s degree. She earned the first one in the 1980s in physical education with a minor in counseling and guidance.
Ms. Bates said she would some day like to open a private practice in Liberty Hill where she believes there is a need — not just for counseling with children, but also with adults.
“I’ve worked with kids for 29 years and I really connect with kids better right now. But then, I’m really just 12 years old at heart,” she laughed.
Holly Kociuba, who teaches alongside Ms. Bates in the Intermediate School’s PE department, agreed that her co-worker has a special way of interacting with young people that motivates them to want to do well.
“She is quite a motivator and has a lot of knowledge in developing skills,” Mrs. Kociuba said. She recommended Ms. Bates for the PE position six years ago after seeing her success as a high school track coach. Ms. Bates coached Ms. Kociuba’s daughter, Callie, and Mrs. Kociuba was interested in developing a strong running program at LHIS.
“She (Ms. Bates) has a unique way of interacting with students, and she will be a great counselor,” Mrs. Kociuba said. “Her empathy and concern for all her students of any age makes her quite special. They used to refer to her as ‘Mama Bates’ in high school track. She has a sense of humor that the students love and she uses it well to handle behaviors.”
Ms. Bates said her “gruff appearance” and loud voice at first intimidates some fifth and sixth graders.
“But that usually doesn’t last long,” she laughs. “I may have a gruff outer appearance, but inside I’m a big cry baby and get emotional over little things. But it is true that I am loud.”
Spending most of her years teaching, she said she never had the desire to have her own kids.
“I felt like I was doing my part to help raise a lot of kids, and I think my maternal instinct was fulfilled,” she said.
Raised in Tulia in the Texas Panhandle, Ms. Bates said she spent a lot of time as a child feeling insecure about her heighth. She was taller than most of her classmates and saw that as a bad thing until a coach took an interest and encouraged her to play basketball in seventh grade.
“I was taller than everyone,” she said. “But it became a positive thing to be tall.”
She became very successful playing basketball in high school and went on to attend Abilene Christian University where she majored in physical education.
Today, Ms. Bates recounts her own experience when she finds a student feeling insecure about physical appearance.
Over the course of 29 years, Ms. Bates has taught thousands of students. And while she admits she may forget a name or two from time to time, she never forgets a face.
Five years ago, she was at a restaurant in Houston and recognized a woman in the line ahead of her.
“I told the friend I was with, ‘I know that girl’,” she said.
Sure enough, the woman was a student in Ms. Bates’ first high school English class in 1981-82.
She was somewhat reluctant to join the social media craze, but when Ms. Bates finally created a Facebook account, she became reaquainted with many of her former students who are now grownups with their own children.
“A lot of them (students) have had an impact on me,” she said. “I’ve lost kids and that’s killed me. But the hardest are the kids I see achieve so much, then later I see them go off on a different path and that crushes me.”
Ms. Bates remembers some of those whose lives she helped change. Among those, she recalls helping a student who was a victim of serious physical abuse at home, and another who was quick to accept an old sofa that became a clean place to sleep.
“Those are the things I can look back on and say it’s been worth it,” she said.
Ms. Bates said she has seen many changes during her career. Changes in public education and changes in attitudes in the once small-town atmosphere of Liberty Hill have not all been positive.
“There’s always been parents who didn’t trust teachers,” she said. “But now there seems to be more of them.”
She said the change in public attitudes toward teachers is disheartening.
“Their (parents’) support is what has kept us (teachers) going in the absence of pay or prestiege,” she said. “At some point in time, it seems they got the idea that teachers are the enemy. That’s disheartening.”
She said most teachers spend a great deal of time away from school worrying about their students in addition to the time they spend preparing for class. She said she is one of those who takes it all home with her every day.
“I drive home worrying about kids,” said Ms. Bates. “Our classes are so big that sometimes kids will leave and I realize I didn’t interact with them that day. The ones who are quiet and do all that you ask…those are the ones who get cheated (out of time with the teacher).”
Before report cards are distributed, Ms. Bates and Mrs. Kociuba spend a great deal of time consulting with each other on grades. Ms. Bates said it isn’t unusual for the two PE teachers to work into the late night reviewing each student’s participation in class.
She said they take their jobs seriously, even when some parents don’t view the class as being as important as other subject areas.
“She (Ms. Bates) has high energy and is passionate about being fit and active,” said Intermediate Principal Kathy Major. “Coach Bates has a passion for achieving the best there is to achieve. There is no doubt that she will seek the best from those she works with in the future.”
Mrs. Kociuba said her teaching partner will be missed.
“She has contributed so much that it’s hard to put into words,” she said. “But, she has an exciting career ahead of her so we are all happy for her.”