High school teacher balances multiple passions

Published 8:13 am Wednesday, October 24, 2018

David Yates went up to the board after receiving his academic probation. One of the teachers looked at him, a student who kept getting into trouble for skipping class, dead in the eye and said, “There is no way you are getting a Master’s degree.”

Yates’ response, in his own words:

“That just p-ssed me off.”

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Several years later, Yates would go on to become the top graduate in his class’s graduate school with not one, but two Master’s degrees, and find himself balancing three unlikely passions at once.

Yates grew up on F Street in Elizabethton, and spent the first half of his life growing trees on his farm as a hobby while serving as a Carter County Deputy.

“I had lots of time off, and I had the land,” Yates said. “I started growing Christmas trees.”

Originally, Yates said he went to school just to learn how to grow better trees, but his time in the Master’s program encouraged to explore the biological aspect of trees and agriculture as well.

This work led him to research the anti-microbial, or anti-bacterial, properties of the resin of a particular Japanese tree, and his paper on this resin is what won him the Top Graduate award.

Yates said his life took another unexpected turn when he was invited to teach at David Crockett High School in Jonesborough.

“Never in my life did I think I would be teaching,” he said. “I never applied to teach here. The old teacher died, and I was invited to teach the day before school started.”

Yates said he grew to love teaching, however, and has been at the high school for the past 14 years.

He said his favorite moments of being a teacher are when his students finally get it.

“I love when their eyes light up when they figure something out for the first time,” Yates said. “I love when they finally get it.”

Yates said he is one of the more popular teachers at the school, but Yates attributed that more to the subject he teaches than his personality.

“If I taught math, they would hate me,” he said.

Over time, he said he started thinking about the resin he studied, fearing his work might have been more important than he realized, another factor convinced him to keep his research going.

“I was getting tired of people who kept asking me if the resin could kill cancer,” Yates said. So, he began research on the properties of the resin he studied for his Master’s, and went back to school to work on his PhD while doing so.

However, Yates said working on his PhD was cutting time out of his real job, and so he considered leaving David Crockett until he was finished.

Instead, Scott Niswonger, a philanthropist and founder of the Niswonger Foundation, an organization dedicated to preparing East Tennessee students for the “increasingly rigorous education necessary to compete for 21st century jobs,” approached Yates with a grant offer of $100,000.

With that, Yates was able to continue his work at David Crockett as well as his PhD, which he completed two years ago.

Yates said research into the resin has yielded promising results, but due to pending patents and other legal reasons, he chose not to reveal much more.

Yates said his journey from tree farmer to PhD taught him the value of education.

“You cannot pay too much for education,” he said. “You get your money back.”

Yates also talked about the things he has learned from becoming a teacher, what he called an unexpected yet fulfilling job.

“You are never too late to fulfill your goals,” he said.