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Virginia Journal of Education

Scaling New Heights

An ‘aha’ moment in, of all places, Bed Bath & Beyond gives one teacher a new perspective on his profession.

By Toney L. McNair, Jr.

Over the past few months I've become very fond of ladders. Yes, ladders. Who would have thought that an experience of looking at a ladder would create a different perspective for me? But it did.

I was preparing to go on a trip, and I was really excited about it. I needed some things from the store and one of my favorite places to get toiletries from is Bed Bath and Beyond. Yes, I’m a man who loves Bed Bath and Beyond.

When I got to the store and began gathering items, I discovered that the last one on my list was in the store but high up on a top shelf. I thought I could reach it, and I tried, but I couldn't grab it.

I saw a ladder nearby and on my way to get and use it, I also saw the sign right next to it that said, very clearly, "Do not attempt without assistance." I looked around and saw that no one was watching. I started to climb up that ladder, but then I felt guilty because the sign’s message kept beating like a drum in my head: "Do not attempt without assistance." Also, as I put a foot on it, I could tell the ladder was somewhat unstable.

Whoa, I better go get someone to get this item for me, I thought.

I went and got a worker from the store, and when we got back to the ladder, she said, "You saw the sign, huh?"

I admitted that I had.

"I'm so glad that you didn’t try to climb it,” she said. “The ladder’s unstable. No one can do this by themselves. I’ll grab what you want if you’ll hold the it for me.”

That’s when the light bulb went off in my head. As she began to climb, I thought, "Do not attempt without assistance.”

It occurred to me that, as an educator, my whole profession is about holding ladders.

I hold ladders for my students. And I’d tell anyone who is climbing one to make sure your first step is a solid one, that you have good footing. That's what the BB&B worker did. She made sure I had a good grip on the ladder, so she could get solid footing.

The second thing I’d say to my students, and to anyone climbing a ladder, is to make sure you have a good grip. This worker, with each step that she took, made sure she had a good grip on that ladder.

As I watched her climb, I realized she couldn’t get to the top without me. The same is true of my students: They need me and look forward to me helping them to get to the top. I’m the one holding their ladder. The BB&B employee eventually got far enough up the ladder to retrieve the item I was looking for.

Educators, for the better part of our careers, are holding ladders. And, so, I no longer look at ladders the same way. I look at them as a message to anyone in this profession—educators hold ladders for a living. The woman at the store was able to reach the top and get the item I needed, and I share with my students that if I'm holding the ladder for you, if you have a good firm footing for your direction, if you hold on tight and don't look down (because sometimes that ladder is a little wobbly), and if you continue to move forward, you will eventually get to the top and get what you need.

It’s important that as an educator I understand my role. And my role is to hold ladders.

Dr. McNair, president of the Chesapeake Education Association, was Virginia’s 2017 Teacher of the Year. He is a choral music teacher at Indian River Middle School. This article is drawn from a podcast he recorded, along with other state Teachers of the Year, all of which can be found at


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