Alex Richardson was destined to become an elementary science coach.
In 2001, the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools received a grant from the National Science Foundation. He saw a listing related to the grant for math and science facilitators posted at Hall-Woodward Elementary School, where he had taught for 21 years. (He had also taught at Ibraham Elementary School and Diggs Elementary School.)
The idea of becoming a science facilitator intrigued him. He’s always liked delving into the mysteries of how the world works and how things change.
“I think I will apply for this and see what’s what,” he thought.
Richardson applied and was hired; he has been helping science teachers find the best ways to teach their students ever since, while also serving as the science coach for elementary schools.
Richardson has been a Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools educator for 40 years. He could have retired a while back, but each day, he would ask himself, “Who is it that I can help today?” And, each day, people and projects would come to mind. “It just happened …The years just kept on going.”
But that day finally came on Friday, Feb. 28 – Richardson’s last day with the school system before retirement.
People who worked with Richardson hold him in high regard. Velvet McGregor, the curriculum coordinator at South Fork Elementary, used to teach fifth grade at Cook Elementary. After her students there scored poorly on science tests, she went to Richardson and said that she thought part of the problem was that she was not as good as she would like to be at teaching science.
A couple of nights a week, Richardson teaches science to fifth-graders at his church – Mount Zion Baptist. He told her that he thought a good way to start would be for her to come to the class and experience it as if she, too, were a student. During the months that followed, she kept coming. He worked with her in other ways, too, always emphasizing the importance of teaching in a way that makes students love what they are learning. It worked.
“He taught me how to teach science,” McGregor said. “Our scores skyrocketed.”
Benika Thompson, the school system’s program manager for science, said Richardson is a strong believer is students’ ability to achieve.
“Through the spirit of professionalism, he reminds us all to allow students the opportunities to learn science and demonstrate what they ‘know, understand, and are able to do,’” she said.
Earlier this school year, Steve Overholt became the school system’s second elementary science coach, and, in the months since, Overholt has been learning as much as he can from Richardson. What makes Richardson good at what he does?
“It is his passion – a passion for science and a passion for the kids,” Overholt said. “I’m trying to be as much of a sponge as I can.”
Richardson, who will turn 64 in April, grew up in Winston-Salem. His father, also named Alexander, inspected tobacco for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., and, his mother, Mary, took care of the house and family. Richardson was one of 11 children. Growing up, space was so tight his older siblings told him that there was a time when he slept in a dresser drawer.
He is not the only educator in the family. His older sister Annie Hairston went on to become an assistant superintendent. His sister Modine R. Shaw retired from the school system as a teacher at Philo Middle School. His brother Willie was the assistant principal at Kernersville Elementary School when he retired. Another sister taught in New York.
Richardson graduated from Anderson High School in 1968. At Winston-Salem State University, he earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. For a while after graduating in 1973, though, he resisted his calling to go into education. With those older siblings already teachers, he said to himself, “I don’t want to do what they’re doing.”
Instead, he sold life insurance. After about a year, he thought, “I didn’t go to school for this.”
When he started teaching, he made a point to get to know the students as people. He would find out what they liked and what was going on in their lives. He would visit the families at their homes to make sure he made a connection with the parents and developed a good sense of what life was like for the students.
“I pride myself on having a great relationship with my parents and my students,” he said.
Richardson is known for dressing well. His habit of dressing smartly comes partly from his father, who put on a tie every day before heading to work, and partly from wanting to set an example for students. Richardson is also known for using his hands as he talks. At a recent workshop for teachers on the ways to teach weather, his hands vividly illustrated water vapor rising from the ground and returning to the ground as rain.
“If somebody tied my hands, I wouldn’t be able to talk about what I am talking about,” he said.
Richardson and his wife, Vera, have been married for 32 years. They have two children – Alexander, 30, and Alisha, 25. He has much to keep him busy in retirement. At Mount Zion, he is a member of the Deacon Board, Male Chorus and a church bus driver. He also won’t give up teaching altogether. He will continue tutoring students in science and expects to be back in schools as a volunteer.