Saturday's MLK speaker Harden credits Rantoul educational experience

RANTOUL — Dr. James Harden III marvels at the “phenomenal teachers” he had three decades ago at J.W. Eater Junior High School — and credits much of their influence for his academic success.

“Even today, 30-some years later, many of my middle school teachers still mentor me, call me, text me, (communicate) with me on Facebook,” Harden said. “Especially when they found out I wanted to be a teacher.”

Harden, who remains active in education and has written two books on the subject, will be the featured speaker at Saturday’s Martin Luther King observance in the auxiliary gymnasium at Eater. The event will run from 2 to 3:30 p.m. It is open to everyone.

Harden said he had “great high school teachers as well” at Rantoul Township High School.

“With that kind of foundation, you really don’t fail,” he said.

But he is quick to point out, it’s not just teachers who are important in a child’s education. The family unit and schools are as well.

His first book, “Think Like a Teacher, Act Like a Parent” focuses on the parents’ responsibilities.

“The purpose of that is trying to get parents to understand their role and responsibility and the power they have in the education process,” Harden said. “They’re the No. 1 teacher. If parents and teachers and schools work together, then phenomenal things can happen for children.”

He used the analogy of a three-legged stool. If one of the legs is broken, the stool falls over. That’s why it is important for all three factors — teachers, parents, schools — to contribute.

Harden’s second book is “Enrolled, Enlisted or Employed.”

Its purpose is to focus on students and their parents starting to focus on the child’s future around the sixth grade.  

“It’s OK not to go to college,” Harden said. “If you get enrolled in the university, great. But what if you decide you want to enlist? Great. It worked well for my father and my family.”

Harden said if a student wants to enter the workforce after high school, fine.

He cited one of his students who was not good in the classroom, but he loved to weld. A year after high school, he had a welding job for which he pulled down $55,000 a year.

“I’m very pro-college. I’m also very pro-skill set,” Harden said.

Harden’s father, James Harden Jr., was in the military. Harden III initially lived in South Bend, Ind., and moved to Rantoul in about 1985 when he was 9 or 10 years old.

The 43-year-old Harden said growing up in Rantoul was a good experience.

“It was a village. It had tremendous diversity, and it wasn’t just a term back then,” he said.

“My friends came from all parts of the globe and from all walks of life. They were from Paxton, Gifford, Ludlow, Champaign, Rantoul. Just a great mosaic of people.”

He said his family was active in Rantoul’s New Life Baptist Church.

Harden graduated from RTHS in 1993, the year Chanute Air Force Base closed. His graduating class was a great deal smaller than when it started high school as parents were deployed elsewhere.

Harden’s father took a one-year deployment to Kansas and then retired. The family decided to return to Rantoul because they liked the community and it is close enough to South Bend to easily visit family and friends.

The younger Harden attended Parkland College before entering Eastern Illinois University, where he majored in education. He earned a bachelor’s degree in social science and taught social studies at Urbana High School for six years.

He served as assistant principal in the Champaign school district for three years, at which time he was studying toward his master’s and PhD at the University of Illinois.

He accepted a position as a professor at Eastern Illinois, a position he held for about six years.

Harden said he missed the energy of schools, so he took a principal’s job in Belleville, in the St. Louis metro area, where he remained for three years. He then transferred to the southern suburbs of Chicago for three years and now is in Bloomington-Normal as the human resources director for the McLean County school district.

As the featured speaker at Saturday’s MLK event, Harden said he plans to be “motivational, inspirational, academic and challenging.”

He said he will speak about King and his legacy, which he believes is important in a village such as Rantoul with its diversity.

Harden said he gives motivational speeches “all over” and enjoys doing it. But Saturday’s speech will be personal.

“It’s something special when you can personalize the speech,” he said. “This is my village.”


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