Love for children, community at the heart of Kathy Major
By SHELLY WILKISON
What do former Liberty Hill football Coach Jerry Vance’s high school PE teacher, and a Chicago Bears Super Fan have in common?
May sound unusual, but both found a voice in Kathy Major, who imagined their characters and brought them to life for the enjoyment of Liberty Hill ISD employees — all for the sake of teamwork.
Major has been the scribe and the voice of the back-to-school skits that bring Liberty Hill teachers and staff to tears with laughter at the staff convocation each year.
It’s a side of the stoic Intermediate School Principal that parents and students don’t often see. But it’s the team-building exercise involving all LHISD principals that helps educators start the school year with a light heart and newfound energy sparked by the words from what Major describes as her “crazy mind.”
“I have that crazy mind that thinks of these things I observe,” she said, adding that she keeps a notebook by her desk where she jots down ideas all year long for the skit. “I think these skits help people get some perspective. We need to be laughing at ourselves when we can. That’s important.”
While Major, 57, was blessed with a gift of story telling that morphed into script writing, she didn’t miss her calling when she chose public education as a lifelong career. After 36 years in Texas public schools, she is retiring this month.
Her real calling in Liberty Hill has been as Principal of Liberty Hill Intermediate School where every day Major walks her talk and just does it right.
It’s a message she has been delivering to students for years.
“Just Do it Right. ACHIEVE Success!”
That’s Major’s motto for the school and the thousands of students she has crossed paths with over the years. Helping young people build character is important to her, and it all starts in Morning Meeting.
“Success isn’t always winning,” said Major, a hard-core sports fan who cheers first for the Panthers, followed closely by the Spartans of her alma matter Michigan State University and the Longhorns of the University of Texas. “It’s also about character.”
“ACHIEVE”, she uses as an acronym for such character traits as being accountable, compassionate, having honor, using intellect, seeking excellence, valor “because you have to be brave sometimes when you’re scared”, and excitement because everyone needs to celebrate success.
Every day, Intermediate students do a chant answering Major’s “At LHIS, we just do it right” with “achieve success!” No doubt, every parent in Liberty Hill whose children have walked Major’s hallways have come home sharing the chant, that started from a Nike commercial.
“Like every good teacher, I borrowed the idea,” Major said, laughing and referring to the Nike message “Just Do It!”
“It was a way to use pop culture to connect with the kids,” she added.
“When I learn something, I know if it’s the right puzzle piece for us. I think it (the ACHIEVE success message) works,” she said.
Major said when she meets with students on disciplinary matters, she follows a sequence of questions to get the student to think about the behavior.
“What are you doing? What are you supposed to be doing? How’s this working for you? What can I expect from you in the future? Can you do that?” she asks the students.
She said students were seated in a green, wing back chair in her office as they crafted answers to the questions.
One frequent flyer on the green chair stopped in years later as a police officer, stood at the door as she was reading and repeated Major’s litany of questions, bringing a smile to her face.
Major, who to many students through the years has been like another mother of sorts, doesn’t shy away from protecting her students leaving no doubt that each one is loved and important.
“She truly loves each and every child that has ever been in her building,” said Liberty Hill Junior High Principal Annette Coe. “She has taught me to always ask myself, “what is best for the kids?” before I make a decision. She is one of a kind.”
So focused on connecting with students, Major starts the school year by getting to know each new student using a routine to help her remember names and faces by connecting them with something important about each one. She repeats what she’s told by each student, then moves around the classroom as if building a “story” of the class.
Years later, former students are often surprised when Major can pick them out of a crowd by name and still ask about their parents and siblings by name.
And on graduation night at Panther Stadium, it’s not unusual to see Major frequently stopping the grads in their tracks for congratulatory hugs.
“I love it when my high school kids come back,” she said, as she grabs a box of tissue that’s always strategically placed nearby. “It’s the moments that are very special, those things make this job the best.”
Major grew up in western Michigan, in the small town of Montague. In her family, having an education was the most important thing one could accomplish in life. In fact, on her mother’s side of the family, all 12 of their children pursued a college education – even during the Depression.
“Not having an education was not an option in my family,” she recalls. Families made sacrifices because of the deep-rooted belief an investment in education was the most important thing.
While Major was in college, her mother turned over her paychecks as a nurse at the start of every semester so she could have an opportunity.
Major said she knew from the time she was a teenager that she wanted a career working with children.
“I worked as a babysitter when I was 13,” she said. “I just knew that working with children was what I wanted to do.”
Growing up in a manufacturing town where most of her friends sought jobs in the plants, Major said her interest in teaching wasn’t the norm. And after college graduation, she did another brave thing and moved to Houston following recruiters seeking teachers from Michigan.
There, she met Estes Major, the proud Cajun she would build a life with in Austin. She first took a teaching job at Lake Travis Elementary. The Majors bought some land in Liberty Hill and she was commuting to Austin. She said former Superintendent Louine Noble, who she knew from church, asked her to do some writing consulting at Liberty Hill Elementary, and the following year — 1991 — she was offered a first grade teaching position. She earned a Master’s Degree from UT.
“You’re just where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be there,” she said, describing how blessed she is to have made it to Liberty Hill and had such a positive experience. She adds that life became even more complete after her mother moved from Michigan to Liberty Hill. It was really home then.
“Now is just the right time,” she said of her decision to retire. Reaching for another tissue, she said she had been planning an exit strategy for about a year.
“But really, it’s about seasons and being annointed. When you’re annointed to do something, you can do anything within it, and when the season is over, it’s time to move on,” she said. “Not everyone gets to be the principal of Liberty Hill Intermediate School — how blessed I’ve been.”
The opening in August of a new elementary school spurred by rapid growth seemed to make the timing right for her exit, she said.
“It’s about what is best for the district– if I’m going to walk my talk, then when is it best so the district can do what they need to do and be able to have the best person in play. I love this district, so that was part of the ‘why now’ I guess.
“I look at what people are trying to do. I’m proud of how they’re trying to keep up with and stay ahead of the growth,” she said. “Doing what’s right by the kids every single time, even if it’s hard — staying true to our core values. That’s what’s important.”
The decision to name her assistant principal, Josh Curtis, as principal was a good one, Major said. Her confidence in his ability to lead is unwavering.
“I have never met a person who embodies everything that is great about a school,” Curtis said. “When she says ‘Remember I love you and that is why I’m here,’ it is not just words, it is the truth. Personally I would not be were I am today professionally or personally without the guidance and support from Mrs. Major.”
The best day?
Major said there have been so many best days that it’s hard to single out just one. However, she remembers the joy spawned by a big snowfall a few years ago while students were at school — a rarity for Liberty Hill. Childhood memories of winter in her beloved Michigan came flooding back as she watched the kids on the playground.
“It was the best day because it was what school should be — taking advantage of a spontaneous moment. The snowballs — just the sound of that was so cool, the screeching, the laughing, pure joy,” she said.
But more best days include watching the student who once couldn’t make a lap around the track, finishing a whole obstacle course. And the pride that comes year after year celebrating the success of UIL academics.
Major admits she’s an emotional person. She keeps tissues nearby at all times, and those who know her best aren’t surprised when “her cup runneth over.”
Her grandmother told her that she shouldn’t be embarrassed when the tears fall. The passion, the love, the anger, the frustration — there are just feelings that can’t be expressed by words.
“There are times when I can’t talk without crying, and that’s been frustrating for me,” she said. “But that’s just who I am, and I just have to be me.”
“She pours her whole heart into it (educating kids),” said Superintendent Rob Hart. “Kathy is the number one Panther fan, and she loves this district.”
Her plans for retirement?
On the first day, she plans to drink coffee on the porch with Estes, thank him for all his support through the years, then plan a fishing trip.
Up at 4 a.m. every day for as long as she can remember, she doesn’t know what it will feel like to abandon the routine.
“It’s pretty surreal still,” she says about the notion of retirement. “But I love Liberty Hill, and that’s why I was here and that’s why I will always be here.”
And as to the question that many co-workers must surely have as the anticipation rises for a new school year – one without Major … will she come back to do the skit?
Hart remembers his favorites — HR Director but then LHHS Principal Bobby Mabry as the Church Lady from Saturday Night Live, LHHS Asst. Principal Jonathan Bever as then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, and former high school AP Robert Stoss as Jethro from the “Liberty Hillbillies”.
Major laughs at the thought that the widely popular back to school skit could be part of her legacy. She explains that planning the skit is sort of like planning for school.
“Most of the time, I can see the whole picture. I can see the final product. When you can see the end, it just all falls together,” she said.