Conway Public Schools superintendent Jeff Collum knows a thing or two about teamwork. The former basketball coach turned school administrator said a culture of collaboration has guided his 25-year career in education, both on and off the court.
Superintendent Collum began his career in education as a teacher and a coach in southeast Texas. Although his father also was a coach and later a principal, Collum did not pursue education as a career initially. He studied physical therapy and sports medicine in college so he could one day become a professional trainer for an NFL team.
Collum was on the path to making his dream a reality, landing a yearlong internship with Washington’s NFL franchise, now known as the Washington Commanders. It was the encouragement of former coaches that ultimately led him to change his major and pursue a career in education, first as a basketball coach and teacher and eventually as a school administrator.
“Coaching wasn’t what I was interested in, but on my coach’s suggestion, I met with school leaders at a junior high one January about an open part-time position and decided to give it a shot, thinking I’d finish out the spring semester and move on,” he said. “I coached the team through the season and absolutely loved it.”
Collum loved the experience so much that he called his father and told him he planned to change his major to become a coach and a teacher.
“There was a long pause on the other end of the phone, and I thought I had messed up,” Collum said. “But my dad started crying and said he couldn’t be more proud. I knew right then I was making the right decision.”
Collum said he still wants to be like his father, who died 13 years ago. As a high school principal, his father was intentional about building relationships with students and teachers.
“Dad was one of the best at making people feel important just by being sincere and genuine,” he said. “He’s probably the reason that I’m in education. Outside of my joy for coaching basketball, I wanted to be like my dad.”
Collum taught and coached for about 10 years and then began to work his way into administration, first as an assistant principal at a junior high and then as a high school principal. He eventually became a central office administrator at Tyler Independent School District in Tyler, Texas, which had 31,000 students across 31 campuses. It was this experience that shaped Collum’s commitment to school safety.
During his time at Tyler ISD, a teacher was stabbed and killed at school. Collum said the tragedy underscored the importance of having protocols in place to ensure the safety of educators and students.
“It was a very traumatic situation for our employees and for the community as a whole,” Collum recalled. “I’d always thought about school from a safety perspective, as in what we can do to keep kids safe in general, but until that event occurred, I never completely understood the impact of having good safety response mechanisms in place.”
Collum began working with individual campuses in Tyler ISD to rewrite safety policies. He eventually began working with other school districts within Texas, which led to speaking engagements at national events and assisting schools across the U.S. Over the past decade, Collum has become well known throughout the nation for his work and insight on school safety initiatives.
When interacting with school districts about school safety, Collum has noticed that while communication is the first thing educators and school leaders need during a traumatic event, it is often the last thing that’s considered when drafting safety protocols.
“It’s important to have a communication plan and a training plan that outlines how people communicate with each other during a crisis,” he said. “It should address simple questions such as ‘Do we have enough walkie-talkies? Do our phone systems work? Do we know how to contact police? What’s our mitigation plan for when information about the event is texted to parents and shared on social media? How do we follow up with parents?’
“In the heat of the moment, these simple questions are going to be the last thing you’re going to think of, but it’s really the first thing you need.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented new challenges when it comes to school safety. Collum said the biggest challenge school leaders have faced is reliability of information and trying to be consistent during an inconsistent situation.
“There has been a lot of uncertainty from reliable resources,” he said. “You can get different messaging and different bits of information on a daily basis, and then you have to process and disseminate that information.”
Collum said that while it is the superintendent who ultimately makes the hard decisions, he values collaboration and listening to others’ perspectives.
“As superintendent, you can only do so much by yourself,” he said. “The better you can build a team, and the more you can help empower them to do their jobs and to do them well, the more successful the district will be. I’ve been a benefactor of having some good teams, and Conway has been no different.”