When what you love feels more like a calling than a career, then work becomes more than a job, but your joy, according to Roger Parks, a teacher at the Teen Learning Center in Cleveland.
Parks, who is also a coach at Cleveland High School, said finding a career that you love and keeping your focus on family can even be more rewarding than earning money, something he is living proof of. This became clear in 1990, when Parks, who had been teaching and coaching in McMinn County for 16, years had to make a life-changing decision.
His father, George (G.C.) Parks, had been diagnosed with cancer. Parks said he knew his priorities would have to shift from coaching to caring for his dad whenever his family needed him.
“After a few years I asked if I could take a year’s leave from coaching but continue teaching, because my motto in coaching was all about ‘commitment,’” he explained. “And I didn’t want to be talking out both sides of my mouth — saying my students need to be committed, but knowing if my mother called me and we were going to a ball game I was going home — because family comes first.
“So when I asked to take a year’s leave the head coach said OK, the principal of the school said OK, but the superintendent would not agree. He said if you don’t coach, you don’t teach. At that time I had 10 years of tenure but I didn’t have time to fight the system. So I resigned and started a business of my own.”
Although his heart was still in teaching, Parks Financial Services was a success. Parks said he made more money than he ever made as a teacher and coach. He also had the freedom to be there for his terminally ill father.
“My dad passed away in 1992,” Parks said. “Then in the spring of 1994 my mother, Dorothy, was diagnosed with cancer. She battled that disease for 15 years — had 150 chemo treatments.”
Through it all, Parks and his sister, Dorinda, were there for their parents, something they never regretted. Parks said his business was thriving, but admits that being a business owner for all those years was not as rewarding as being an educator of children. In 2000, however, an agent in his office started offering to buy the business.
Parks was suddenly confronted with the choice of returning to something he truly loved or continuing a lucrative career in financial services.
“I think we feel called to do what we do,” Parks confessed. “I know preachers feel like they were called to preach and missionaries are called to be missionaries — well, I think we are all called to our vocation. Whether you say I’m a God-called teacher, I don’t know.
“But you’re given talents, abilities and interests — things you really enjoy doing. Most of the time what you enjoy doing is what you’re good at. I try to pass that focus on to my students. Do something you love.”
Parks, who lives in Meigs County, said he discussed it with his wife, sold his agency and, after 16 years away from his chosen profession, decided to go back into education.
The week he decided to resume his academic career in 2006, he applied for a teaching position at McMinn County Schools, Athens City Schools and the Rhea, Meigs, Bradley and Cleveland City schools systems.
“The following Monday I was called to teach in Cleveland,” he said. “In 2008, I started working with the football system at Cleveland Middle School. This past year I was asked to coach at Cleveland High School.”
In 2009, Parks lost his mother to cancer. Still, he said he cherished the time he spent with both his parents when they needed him the most, calling it “some of the most precious time” he ever spent with them.
Now that he is back teaching students at the Teen Learning Center, Parks is able to combine his love of teaching with lessons he learned in a life that includes the loss of loved ones and remembering what matters the most in life.
In 1995, the day after Thanksgiving, Parks was in an automobile accident that nearly killed him and took the life of his 9-year-old son, Jonathan Tyler. Parks had three broken vertebrae in his neck and six broken ribs in his side. The right side of his head and face needed reconstructing.
To this day he is unable to remember the three days before, during and after the accident. Parks said he found his greatest source of comfort in reading the Holy Bible.
As he searched for the words to explain his tragic loss — tears filling his eyes in the silence of his soul searching — Parks could only say in a whisper, “Nature tells us we’re going to lose our parents and even our spouse. But nothing can prepare you for that. It’s been over 16 years. Most of the time I can talk about it. But there are times — it’s just like a tidal wave.
“Children are our greatest resource. They’re our country’s greatest resource. Tyler was a blessing. He made one B in his life (in school). He played four sports — basketball, football, baseball and he was on the swimming team. He never met a stranger.
“The greatest challenge and the greatest responsibility an adult has is that of being a parent. You’re going to be a parent from the time your child is born until you die. The thing that parents are responsible for teaching their children — that concerns me today — is our spiritual commitments.
“I was there when Tyler made his decision to accept Christ as his savior. I’m proud of his playing four sports. But the thing I’m most proud of is that he had lined himself up with Jesus.”
The man who puts family and teaching at the center of his life, along with his faith in God, said he is aware of the guidelines in an education system where teachers cannot say or do certain things.
But he is also aware that most of the students in his class are there for breaking rules having to do with drugs and other serious offenses. Others, he said, are there because of grades, poor attendance or tardiness at the normal school.
“The administration at the high school or middle school has seen it as beneficial for the student to be put in an alternative situation to increase their motivation,” he said. “They’re expelled from high school or middle school but they’re not expelled from our school system.”
Parks looked to his right and said, “That book (pointing to his Bible) has been on my desk for 20-something years, and it will always be on my desk. You don’t have to say it, but sometimes your life is the only Bible some people will ever read.
“I think our education system is a mission field. I was very proud to work with the coaching staff that was here this year. I know the priority of the coaches I worked with — and especially former coach (E.K.) Slaughter — has been teaching young men to be good men, good fathers, good husbands and to teach them how to leave a legacy, as compared to just winning or losing.
“If they win THAT game — we may lose on Friday night or we may win on Friday night — that’s a short-term elation. But we cannot afford for them to lose in the game of life.”
Parks has been teaching at the Teen Learning Center for six years. He is currently teaching two classes of team sports, a wellness class for high school students and one for middle school students. His own lessons in life and love for teaching, however, make this 60-year-old teacher a standout.
Parks, who grew up in a family that raised their own fruits, vegetables, beef and chicken on 140 acres, still farms. He and his wife, Cherrie, raise beef cattle and walking horses for trail riding.