Heroic woman who landed crippled Southwest plane uses tea parties to teach life lessons
To me she was simply Marshall’s mom. She came to our track meets and cared about how we did in our events. She constantly asked how my year was going. She invested in those around her and that fact was always apparent. I always looked up to her as an amazing role model, woman and friend.
On April 17 of this year, Tammie Jo Shults became a role model for people across the globe.
Suddenly, she wasn’t just a hometown hero but a nationally recognized woman. Young women and men across the nation have been inspired by her faith. Her story has taught them to embrace the ability to dream big and fight for their goals while fixing their eyes upon the Lord.
But before she safely landed a Southwest plane with only one engine, she was a role model for a small group of elementary school children in Boerne, Texas. Following her career in the Navy, Shults has been a long-time employee of Southwest Airlines. Southwest sponsors a program called Adopt-aPilot, which is a supplementary program that teaches fifth grade students about science and math in the aviation field.
The program excited Shults and she approached Meadowlands Charter School in Boerne with the possibility of introducing it in the school. A week later, the school accepted her proposal, but asked her to teach the program in first through fifth grade.
Shults’ husband Dean came alongside her to teach fifth grade students, while she wrote and taught the curriculum for first through fourth graders.
“The first two lessons seemed to go pretty well,” Shults said. “For the first one I had lots of Navy flight suits, helmets and SV2 vests -- lots of fun show and tell stuff. We talked about what those things did and everybody was happy. The next time I came I had charts, things to look at and cookies, but as soon as I ran out of things that I needed helpers for, people were quite unhappy. Everybody wanted to have a job.”
Shults explained that when she stopped bringing props, the kids would throw fits or just leave the room.
“It just melted them down to not be a part of the activity,” Shults added.
She didn’t let this discourage her. The next few days she thought over the situation and prayed about it, hoping a brilliant idea would come to her. Friday came around and hours before she was scheduled to be there, a brilliant idea came to her mind.
“I thought to myself, ‘Ok, if they want a job, I’m taking plenty of jobs.’ So I packed up my China teacups and saucers, tongs, sugar cubes, cream, tea, cookies, mints and napkins. Oh, my goodness, it took me three tubs to get all this out there, but everybody had a job,” Shults said.
Thus, her Meadowlands weekly tea party was born. Even though the class was made up of mostly boys, everyone loved and embraced the tea party.
“The teachers were so afraid because everything is china and breakable, but to this day we have not chipped a thing,” Shults said. “It’s because they have this sense that this is special. So in return, they act special. It elevates their behavior to be treated with something this special.”
She went on to add that one of the most special things she has witnessed is that the kids love serving and want to serve.
“We are all meant to serve. That’s just in our DNA. They are kids that have been given things their whole life. They are given a place at Meadowlands to live. They are given their clothes and their food. They are given their education, but they wanted something to give. They want to be the ones that serve,” Shults said.
The idea of the tea party was started to help keep the kids engaged, but it also set the kids up to want to talk and discuss. It was such a success that the school asked Shults to continue volunteering once she had completed the six lessons in aviation.
So Shults began teaching the kids using ‘Story of the World’ -- a children’s history textbook by Susan Wise Bauer. Through this book the kids were able to hear interesting stories, yet still learn about history. Once they had finished the book, they cycled through handwriting and have focused on many aspects of good manners since then. For example, Shults taught the kids how to write their first ‘thank you’ note.
Shults shared one of her and Dean’s favorite sayings that has been a key component to what she teaches at Meadowlands, “Good manners will open doors that a good education won’t.”
There are two goals Shults currently has for the kids at Meadowlands. The first being that they learn to write in cursive, so they have a signature, and the second being that they know how to print in a way that makes their future job applications attractive.
Beyond teaching the kids basic manners, the tea parties have also taught them valuable life lessons. They have learned not to eat until everyone is served and to simply say “no thank you” if they do not want something.
“The whole idea of having good manners is very attractive to them,” Shults said.
She went on to describe a situation surrounding a note she now has on her bedside table. One day there were two girls fighting on the playground and one of the teachers approached them. She asked the girls if they thought Mrs. Shults would act this way. The girls both looked at each other and told the teacher, “No, ma’am.” Laura, the teacher, told Shults that was the end of the fight.
Meadowlands is one of the Roy Maas Youth Alternative Schools. Many of the kids who attend have been taken out of violent homes. Some of them have been through traumatic experiences and find it difficult to sit in classrooms with children who have not gone through anything remotely similar to them. Many children who attend Meadowlands used to drop out or run away from school, but now they stay in the classrooms and graduate. These schools help to create stability in these kid’s lives.
Since these kids have been rescued from violent homes, they are not allowed to have their picture taken. Shults didn’t like the idea of them growing up without pictures, so she once again put on her thinking cap.
Recently, the school had a fighter pilot photo booth. All the kids wore flight suits and helmets with the visors down. That way they were able to get pictures, which were then framed for each student.
Shults has been able to step into these kid’s lives and help change it for the better. By teaching them things that most of us just count as second nature, she is helping set them up for a lifetime of success. She truly is making a difference with the kids at Meadowlands.
Although Shults has not been flying solo at Meadowlands, she has encouraged others around her to help by donating their time.
“I started pulling in other people that I knew could be patient with kids because they are not in the same vein as our kids, who have been put on laps, loved on and talked to. They need somebody that will pick up the pencil and finish the drawing if they start to melt down,” Shults said.
When asked what she loved most about volunteering at Meadowlands, Shults said it is the kids.
“It’s so easy to see how God makes everybody so different, but uniquely precious,” Shults explained. She went on to add, “It’s funny. I always feel like I leave with more than what I gave.”