While much has been said of the recent loss of City Schools Director Linda Arms Gilbert on May 20, there was much more to her than the awards she won or even her job. Gilbert was one of those rare people who inspired others to embrace her vision, while at the same time developing them to be the best person they could be, all the while totally devoted to educating the whole child.
Gilbert was born and raised in Rutherford County, and she graduated from Central High School in the late 1960s. She went on to Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) where she received an education degree. She started as a music teacher for the city school district and won Teacher of the Year in 1997, shaking hands with President Bill Clinton at the White House.
She went on to serve the school system as Community Relations Coordinator and Associate Director of Instruction. Eventually she left the system to become an associate professor at MTSU in their Educational Leadership Department. While there she received an honor from the Tennessee Education Association as its Distinguished Higher Education Faculty Member of the Year.
Becoming the Director of Schools was not on her radar, until she was approached to consider the position in 2008. In December of 2009, she was unanimously voted to become Director of Murfreesboro City Schools. She jumped in with both feet.
When speaking to Youth Leadership Rutherford every year, she would tell the junior and senior high school students about how she saw her roll. She set up Murfreesboro City Schools to operate on an inverted pyramid, placing the children at the top, and herself at the bottom. Her job was to give all the others the services, supplies, and support needed to ensure no child was left behind.
In an interview with the Murfreesboro Post several years ago she stated, “In order to lead people, they have to know you care about them. It’s my role to help others be successful so they can help the children succeed.”
She worked hard to make the school system shine, and in 2018, it was named Exemplary ACCESS for providing quality instruction and intervention to those who needed it. In that same interview in the Post she said that her toughest challenge was when she saw a child having a really tough time, and the resources just aren’t there to help. She spent much of her time as Director of Schools developing partnerships and creating needed resources to ensure “her children,” and the teachers who worked with them everyday, had everything they needed to succeed.
One of the people she reached out to was Dr. Lana Seivers, Dean of the School of Education at MTSU.
“Linda knew that the number of people going into teaching has been going down,” said Seivers. “She has been instrumental in bringing the “Grow Your Own” program to Rutherford County and MTSU. The program allows a school system to develop current non-teachers who are good with children and have potential to turn into great teachers. It is a lot of work, and many of the results will be realized after she would have retired, but she was willing to invest the time to ensure Murfreesboro City School System would have a supply of good teachers in the future. It is incredibly far-sighted of her. And it will happen because of her, in spite of our loss of her continued vision.”
This is just one of the programs she spearheaded to ensure teachers and children had the resources they needed to succeed. Beth Duffield, Senior Vice President of Education and Workforce Development at Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce, had similar experiences with Gilbert.
“Over the years we worked with City Schools on a number of initiatives,” said Duffield. “The earliest was the Afterschool Career Exploration project. We brought Junior Achievement volunteers and industry partners into the ESP programs at each Murfreesboro City School for monthly lessons and conversations about careers. I originally wanted to pilot the program with Boys & Girls Clubs in Murfreesboro and Smyrna. When Linda learned about it, she wanted to know why we weren’t including City Schools. My philosophy has always been to pilot an idea, work out the kinks, and then scale it up. Not Linda. I think the word “pilot” was a four- letter word to her. She wanted to help ALL her students, so we rolled up our sleeves and made it happen.”
Understanding that students have a lot of trouble with math, but it is an important need for success in our more technologically advanced world, and in the much-needed construction field, once again Gilbert jumped on board one of Duffield’s programs.
“In 2016, the Rutherford Works Construction Council helped Linda and Murfreesboro City Schools meet a long-term goal of launching a hands-on numeracy program called “If I Had a Hammer.” Linda attended every Rutherford Works Construction Council meeting, and over the course of several conversations convinced our employer partners of the value of connecting with students in elementary school about the value of careers in construction. However, that meant they needed to be strong in math and also to understand how math was used in the real world. The employers… helped fund part of the program. They realized that despite a long-term return-on-investment of the proposition, there was great value to engage with elementary school students in order to help them to begin thinking about careers in construction seven to eight years into the future.”
Glibert had also been working hard during the coronavirus pandemic to make sure that those children who depend on their schools for food were still being fed. Because, to her, taking care of the whole child includes making sure children have a healthy diet, she worked with Mayor Shane McFarland and the community to keep the program going in spite of increasing demands.
The CHOW Bus, which has been providing food at 35 sites in the community, and the Backpack Program, which provides food over the weekend to children from low income families, was running out of funding and food. Reaching out to McFarland, the city was able to reach out to the community raising more than $20,000, including a gift of $2,500 from the Rotary Club of Murfreesboro. Additional donations can be made at http://www.cityschools.net/accepting-donations.
“The last time I was with Linda in person was at the end of February,” added Duffield, “during a visit with local government and education leaders to Overall Creek. She was so passionate about all of Murfreesboro City Schools becoming Tennessee STEM Innovation Network schools, because she understood that if students became immersed in problem solving and project based learning, and were exposed to high quality jobs – which are all STEM related – that our students would be set up for success and would help fill the jobs of the future. I’m thankful she was able to see the addition of Bradley Academy and Erma Siegel Elementary to those designations. She was so very proud.”
Linda Gilbert was 69 years old. Due to the Covid-19 guidelines and these unprecedented and uncertain times, a Celebration of Life will be held at a later date.
In lieu of flowers or meals, the family asks that donations be made to Murfreesboro City Schools, through the C. H.O.W. program or Bob the Book Bus at www.cityschools.net/accepting-donations.