Community roots propel educator to Senate
Opportunities to help people can come in many forms.
You can volunteer at a shelter. Offer training for life skills. Teach kids or adults. Volunteer to serve your country.
Or, if you're Michael Rhett, you can do all of the above.
Now, College of Education alumnus Rhett (PhD '04) can add state senator to that list. After winning the District 33 seat last year, Rhett was sworn in earlier this year as the new state legislative session got underway, and is the first African-American resident from Cobb County to be elected to the state Senate. He replaced longtime senator Steve Thompson in a tight race that showed Rhett's deep community roots.
"I ran for (Cobb County) commissioner a couple times and lost, but each time I lost, I became further and further entrenched in community affairs," he said. "I do a lot of work in the community, and over the years I served my community and my country, it came to the point where the people felt the people representing them weren't in touch anymore. And they asked me to step forward."
Rhett's community connections go back decades. He taught in all levels of K-12 education for 21 years, as well as being an assistant principal. He served in the U.S. Air Force and continues to serve in the U.S. Air Force Reserves, where he counsels young cadets on career options. He also has spent time volunteering at City of Refuge, an Atlanta-based shelter for women, as well as spending time once a week at a nearby prison to counsel men.
Throughout his work, whether it's volunteer or paid, his education experience plays a lead role.
For example, at City of Refuge Rhett developed curriculum to help women make the transition to a new life, helping them set up a bank account, develop interview skills and find a job. At the prison, he said, he would help the men through drug recovery programs and eventually help them find jobs as they transition out of the system.
Although Rhett says he sees it more as a legacy. He would ask that question of the young cadets who came for his advice on careers after the service. Instead of telling them what to do, he would ask: What kind of legacy are you leaving?
"Then I said, if I started asking around here, what would they say your legacy is?," said Rhett, reflecting on how his community service and outreach has affected him. "So, being blessed to go to school, to travel around the world, to see life and death on different levels, it made me think what kind of legacy I'd leave."
Often, he added, it's simply about making a connection with someone. Not just talking with them, but taking the time to understand where they are coming from, and to connect with them in that space.
This is a lesson he's found applies not only to kids in elementary school, but also to their parents — and other adults throughout the community. And his time at the College of Education, he said, gave him a greater understanding of the research involved with any endeavor.
"When I taught in a mainly Hispanic community, during parent-teacher conferences, I was the only teacher who would attempt to speak in Spanish. And that really endeared the parents and got their support," he said. "Most of the time I taught in lower socio-economic communities, and it's pretty interesting because you have to try and get the kids to learn not only how to adapt to the structure in the classroom, but also to help them maintain that structure outside of the classroom. Not only teach them their schoolwork, but their approach to life."