“Initially, I did not want to be a teacher. I wanted to be a beautician.”
This revelation is hard to believe coming from Christine Hodge, a lifelong educator who, at 81 years old, sees no end to her career in sight.
But the story of Hodge’s decision to become a teacher parallels the story of how she has continued in the profession through not one, but two retirements, over a 60-year career.
“I saw a need and people were depending on me,” Hodge said. “So, I changed my major to elementary education.”
Hodge confesses that, despite graduating with honors from college, “I didn’t know how to teach.”
She went to a teacher next door and cried on her shoulder in frustration. The neighbor invited the young teacher to her home that night and began to teach and mentor her.
“That’s where it started,” Hodge remembers fondly.
Hodge taught for seven years in Arkansas. When she began, her school had meager resources. The schools were also in the process of desegregation at the time, which brought with it both an increase in resources and an increase in guards around the schools. Looking for a way out of Arkansas for her family, Hodge had a chance meeting with a Madison Metropolitan School District teacher at the University of Arkansas. This teacher told an MMSD recruiter about Hodge and she was recruited over the phone. When she arrived in Madison in 1971, she began working for the MMSD as an elementary teacher.
Teaching in Madison was a culture shock. Hodge was excited about the resources available to students here, she was taken aback by the fact that many African American students could not read and do math.
“I had never seen that before,” she said. “I didn’t know that was possible until I got here.”
This issue immediately became her passion.
Hodge’s teaching career with MMSD lasted for 25 years until her first retirement.
“On the first day off,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do.”
MMSD was looking for a part-time African American person to assist an administrator who was working on his Ph.D. A building principal contacted Hodge several times for referrals before realizing that he should ask her to do the work. Thus began Hodge’s second career stint with MMSD that lasted for another 10 years.
Reminiscent of her choice to major in education, Hodge’s choice to return to MMSD after retirement was based on a need that she believed she could fill. Hodge recalls that, when she first came to Madison, there were about 19 Black employees in the district spanning food service workers, janitors, teachers, and principals. At the same time, there was a cluster of schools on the east side where most of the African American students attended. Hodge decided to take this opportunity to advocate for these children and their families.
She became an assistant principal at LaFollette High School. Again, she was surprised by the number of African American students who, after four years of high school, could not read and did not have the credits to graduate. She saw the solution to this problem in her elementary roots, so she applied for the principalship at Frank Allis Elementary School. She was hired and worked at Frank Allis until her second retirement from MMSD in 2006.
Armed with her passion, the church’s blessing, and her own funding, the Academic Learning Center was born. As word of Hodge’s good work spread through Madison, donations began to come in, beginning with a $25,000 investment from a community donor. With these funds, Hodge made sure that the students who came to the Academic Learning Center had the best—new furniture, new books, new supplies—because Black children were used to hand-me-downs in their schools.
“Our kids always get raggedy stuff,” she said. “I asked for the best for them.”
She also taught the children about etiquette, hygiene, and other life skills. She ran the program for 13 years until a phone call prompted her to take her third retirement.
The call came from Kaleem Caire, founder and CEO of One City Schools. He had a need. Again, Hodge chose to fill the need and agreed to join One City for two weeks in March 2019. “I’ve been with Kaleem for 4 years!” Now, she is a Leadership Coach at One City who is beloved by the faculty and staff. At the end of this school year, she will have her fourth retirement from One City Schools.
After her time at One City Schools ends, Hodge will return to the place she loves most, the Academic Learning Center at Mt. Zion. One of her goals is to encourage African Americans in Madison to rally around our children and their education through the learning center. “If we don’t teach them, we are going to pay for whatever they become,” she said.
Outside of growing the Academic Learning Center, Hodge is looking forward to spending time with her 4 sisters during her retirement. She is the second of 11 children and the eldest daughter; 9 of her siblings are still living. The group of sisters is planning to travel together and spend time becoming reacquainted after busy professional lives.
The evidence of Hodge’s effectiveness as an educator is in the students, current and former, that she sees around town who thank her for having patience with them, allowing them to be themselves, and even bending a few rules to support them. She beams with pride as she names former students who are doing great things today in Madison and beyond. She is also proud of former teachers that she has worked with like Angie Hicks and Carlettra Stanford, who are both key leaders in MMSD.
“I was born to teach and I was born to lead,”Hodge said. “I’ve been in education for 60 years now and I’m really not tired.” She sees her talent to teach and to lead teachers as a gift from God, and she wants to exhaust it. “I can’t stop until I am done.”