Middle school counselor's impact goes beyond school grounds
By ANDREW J. YAWN
Aug. 25, 2018
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — None of Thomas Tullis' three daughters attend Bellingrath Middle School, but that doesn't stop him from walking the halls looking for his children.
"There goes one of my sons there," he said, pointing as a student skips to the bathroom ahead of him.
A tall figure with a voice that could quiet a storm, Tullis strides past classrooms like a farmer tending his crops. There's seemingly no face he doesn't know despite the influx of 180 new students this year. He has a smile for every one he sees.
"I feel we have a moral responsibility to carry ourselves in such a way so students can get some semblance of what stability looks like," Tullis said. "The behaviors they see from us as educators impact them greatly. It's good as an educator to be mindful that students are watching you. Even when you think they're not."
Each day is unpredictable for Tullis, now in his 13th year as head counselor at Bellingrath, but he always finds time to trek between classrooms, checking on students he sees as his own.
In the seventh-grade hall, Tullis peers through a window and finds one of his newest children, a former Goodwyn Middle School student. The boy seems content and engaged. A satisfied Tullis continues on, his piercing gaze always looking for where he's most needed.
"Since MPS experienced rezoning, we have kids coming from Goodwyn and Brewbaker. I met at least two parents who had real concerns about their students attending Bellingrath Middle School, so one reason for walking the halls is to look in on those kids and make sure they're OK.
"I promised the parents I would."
Ask Tullis what he does as Bellingrath's counselor and he'll omit the things his students and colleagues love most about him.
He won't mention the day two years ago when he taught every math class after the school couldn't find a substitute teacher. He'll skip over the stories of picking up a mop and rag when the cafeteria has plenty of mess but few hands. Only when you ask him will he show you the boxes of school supplies, toiletries, neck ties and school uniforms he keeps on hand to give to students in need.
"He will put the shoes on children's feet," said Amanda Houston, a Goodwyn office staff member who used to work with Tullis.
A Swiss Army knife of a man who has difficulty saying, "No," there's perhaps no job he hasn't worked at the school, however briefly.
"If the gym is short a P.E. coach, he comes in there to see if everything is all right," said coach Cedric Webb. "Mr. Tullis goes over and beyond for the Bellingrath community, culture and environment of the school. He's a great man."
Tullis was inspired to become a counselor by his mother, herself a longtime counselor, who imbued Tullis with a servant's heart and a mantra that shapes each day he walks into his office: Treat every child like your own.
"A kid comes and says, 'Hey, I need a uniform.' 'OK, what size do you wear?' If it needs ironing, we iron it. If we don't have it in a certain size, I'll just run and get it," Tullis said. "All you have to do is ask."
Bellingrath has a need for a counselor such as Tullis, a patriarchal figure his peers describe as compassionate, calm and charismatic. Since starting at Bellingrath, he's been the constant in the equation for a school that has had seven principals in that time.
In addition, the school is burdened by the second-highest free/reduced lunch rate in Montgomery Public Schools (86 percent). Enrollment this year is up by approximately 180 students due to rezoning, which means the number of parents visiting the front office with concerns has also likely increased.
As counselor, much of that falls within his job description. Tullis spent the first week of school helping to craft schedules, prepare for testing and comfort parents and students alike.
"Mr. Tullis' demeanor is so calming with teachers and parents. He can come into a heated situation and just calm it," said Bellingrath Principal Sonya Floyd.
And yet, it's the children — his children — who top Tullis' list of priorities.
Amid the chaos of the first day of school, Tullis spent an hour with a recently rezoned student upset about his change in circumstances. A week later, Tullis visited the boy in P.E., listening intently and offering advice until smiles broke across both their faces.
"That's the kind of thing I see from Mr. Tullis all the time," said library media specialist Carolyn Berry.
Tullis does not confine his responsibilities to school hours or even school premises.
On weekends, he's been known to take students with him to Shiloh Baptist Church, and Floyd said his acts of kindness extend to students' families as well.
"He doesn't mind going into the homes to work with parents, doing home visits and working with something not school related as a resource and a helpful hand," Floyd said. "He'll go out and purchase a uniform or an outfit for a child, get groceries for a parent, or take a parent someplace if they don't have a car or vehicle."
Floyd sometimes arrives at school to find Tullis already there preparing for the day. In fact, Tullis was the first face Floyd encountered when she took the job three years ago. He spent the day showing her the school and sharing insights gained from the halls he paces so frequently.
But Tullis is humbly loathe to identify himself as an anomaly.
"It's shared. A lot of us as educators go above and beyond. If you care, and you absolutely must if you're going to do this job, you can't just do this job during regular hours. It entails much more than that," Tullis said. "People have helped me to get where I'm at, have helped my children, so I feel the need to do the same."
After graduating from Alabama State University in 1994, the Evergreen native began his career as an English teacher at Cloverdale Junior High. Tullis then accepted a counselor position at G.W. Carver High before moving to his current role at Bellingrath in 2005.
Since beginning his career, Tullis has found two kinds of moments he said he will always struggle to deal with.
"Whenever a child dies and whenever a child drops out," Tullis said. "In each instance, you want to see a child do well and go on toward a path of completion. However, when a child is not able to complete that journey at such a young age, that's tough."
Tragedy struck Bellingrath last year after 14-year-old Ja'Querria Timmons was lost to gunfire. Tullis immediately stepped up to organize outside counselors and ministers at the school, Berry and Webb recalled.
"Right after the tragedy he stepped in," Webb said.
Tullis and others then visited the home of Timmons' parents. Again he found he was most needed outside the school walls.
"It was the loss of a family member and our immediate concern was making sure in the limited ways we could that her family was as OK as they could be," Tullis said.
The most satisfying moment of Tullis' career came at Carver when a student ready to drop out confided in him. Along with the student's mother, Tullis convinced her to stay the course. Years later, she returned to Montgomery as a married registered nurse beginning to raise a family and thanked Tullis for believing in her.
"That was energizing. That made it all worthwhile. It was one of those moments where you realize this is why I do what I do," Tullis said.
It was an appreciable moment in an often thankless job, and if Tullis is going to receive any adulation for what he feels are his basic responsibilities, it matters most coming from the mouths of his children.
"I have one rule: I want to be able to look a child in the eye once he or she leaves," Tullis said. "If I see a child anywhere, I want that child to look at me and for me to look at them with mutual respect, even if things didn't go the way we maybe wanted it to go. My goal is to always treat children like I would treat my own."
Information from: Montgomery Advertiser, http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com