By his own account, Joe Flowers doesn’t like to talk about himself. But when Vanguard College Preparatory School celebrated its 50-year anniversary in 2023, everyone else was plenty ready to talk about the beloved educator who had been there since day one. Including his current and former students, many who have gone on to prestigious technology careers.
“Like all great teachers, Mr. Flowers’ success is most vividly seen in the lives he has influenced,” said Head of School Bill Borg, himself an educator for 49 years and at Vanguard for 17. “He has been a mentor to many, a disciplinarian as needed, and a highly successful coach winning state titles. I believe his greatest virtue is his compassion for and commitment to the students that have been entrusted to him.”
Said Associate Head of School Zach Seifert, “His teaching style has remained unwavering, grounded in the belief that students sometimes need to experience failure to truly learn. Mr. Flowers is a consummate professional who continually stays ahead of the curve by immersing himself in the latest trends in educational technology.”
Patty Flowers, a Vanguard educator for 45 years, currently Science Department Head, also has professional observations about her husband of 43 years.
“I’m extremely proud of Joe as a teacher because of his ability to help his students learn how to be proactive in accomplishing their goals,” she said. “He’s an awesome role model in that he’s a life-long learner and demonstrates the importance of that each day while working with his students.”
Joe Flowers has also used his considerable knowledge in the community, as founding director of the Brazos Valley Public Broadcasting Foundation; a trained member of the Community Emergency Response Team for Waco and McLennan County; and on the Aviation Advisory Board for the terminal expansion project completed in 1999. He’s also a licensed Texas Realtor; Ham radio operator; and licensed private pilot.
In 2017, he played a pivotal role in founding Vanguard’s first Tech Robotics team, which went on to receive the Inspire Award at the Texas Cup in 2021; the team was recognized as one of the best among 600 public and private schools in Texas.
All those accolades aside, Joe Flowers will tell you he’s just a curious guy who was good with his hands, puts one step in front of the other, and fell into teaching from technology.
WACOAN: So, Vanguard is 50 years old, and you’ve taught there the whole time. Tell me how that came about.
Flowers: In early 1973, I had just interviewed for a job as a systems analyst for the Western Institute for Science and Technology [WIST], a joint project between Baylor and TSTC. Dr. Louis Bright, WIST’s president, and Dr. Jerry Vincent, vice president for education at WIST and the associate dean of Baylor’s School of education, were thinking about starting a school in Waco based on Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning. That concept had come into vogue in the ’60s, with the idea of mastery learning and learning through independent continuous progress. It was on the cutting edge of education; nobody had really tried it before. Dr. Bright and Dr. Vincent asked me if I’d be interested in teaching math and computer programming at the new school, which would have its own computer system that the students would have access to. Dr. Abner McCall, then president of Baylor, was the first chairman of the board for Vanguard. I had never even considered teaching, but I thought it would be an interesting challenge.
WACOAN: But you were always a tech guy? From childhood?
Flowers: I always enjoyed working with electronics and building kits; I had an erector set as a kid and enjoyed doing things with my hands. But the only way to learn electronics then was to go to the library and read about it or talk to someone who knew how to do it, or just keep trying and failing until you got it right. That’s one of the things that interested me in teaching at Vanguard: giving students a chance to work hands-on with computers when no one else could give them that opportunity.
WACOAN: So, in the days before personal computers, how did you go into computer science to prepare for a career in it?
Flowers: I grew up in Waco and graduated from Richfield High School, which was where Waco High is located now. I wasn’t the smartest kid in school, but that made me a better teacher in the end, because I learned to look at things differently than my friends who understood something on the first try. Many of my friends from high school went on to colleges like Rice, the University of Texas and the Air Force Academy. I wanted to major in engineering and work with computers, but the only universities offering that option at the time were Texas A&M and the University of Texas at Arlington. Many of UTA’s students were already programming computers in their jobs at Bell Helicopter and Lockheed Martin; they didn’t have the formal degree, but they did have real-world experience. At UTA, I was lucky to learn from them alongside my professors with similar training and experience. I earned a B.S. degree in mathematics and computer science from UTA.
WACOAN: Tell me about the early days of the school and the first faculty members.
Flowers: They bought the land for the school in January of 1973, and it opened that September. We weren’t called teachers; we were subject matter consultants who were placed in three Learning Centers: Math/Science, English/History and Foreign Languages. About half of the faculty — including me — had never taught before but were knowledgeable in our disciplines. The students contracted for their grades: Basic, Desirable and Enriched. We had packets with learning objectives for each lesson and a testing center. Students could create their schedules for the following week by arranging punch cards in a deck that we would run through the computer and print out the rolls for.
WACOAN: You were also a coach for many years, right?
Flowers: I coached baseball in the beginning; I grew up playing Little League baseball. My daughter Kristin played softball and I started working with her when she was young and coached her at Vanguard for four years in girls’ varsity softball. She’s a physical therapist at Ascension Providence here in Waco now. We won the state championship in ’98, ’99 and ’01. I stopped coaching after she graduated, because my son Andrew was playing baseball and I had never gotten to go to his games when I was coaching softball. He’s a doctor now in New York. Both graduated from Vanguard, Rice University and then went on to graduate school and medical school.
WACOAN: How do you describe yourself as an educator and how would you like to be remembered by your students?
Flowers: I’m an educator by definition, but I still call myself a subject matter consultant and facilitator because what I really do with my students is help guide them through the process they’re doing on their own. I’d like to be remembered by my students as no-nonsense, fair, consistent and supportive. I’m actually a person who doesn’t like change — which is funny that I’m in this business because technology is constantly changing. I like things settled, and sometimes teaching feels like a circus performer spinning plates; you have to decide which plate to catch while still keeping the others in the air. But that’s what makes this work fun: every day is different. The administration gives us the freedom of deciding how we’re going to teach. Nothing has to be the same year after year. Technology is always changing. Math is consistent, but computer science and technology are always changing.
WACOAN: So how have you kept up with constantly changing technology these past five decades?
Flowers: By taking courses online and at different schools, but mainly through reading computer magazines and going to computer conferences. The Texas Computer Education Association was founded in the early ’80s, and that was an invaluable resource, networking with other technology educators. If you only take courses at a school, the technology is already two years behind by the time you’re learning it. For the past 25 years I’ve been involved with the Independent School Educators’ List [ISED-L, an email forum that allows subscription to specific lists to communicate directly with experienced users] where educators can talk to people all over the world and get multiple answers from peers who are willing to share their expertise. It’s made up of mostly technology educators.
WACOAN: Give the annotated version of computer science technology over the decades you’ve been teaching. In your mind, what have been the most important technologies developed in the past 50 years?
Flowers: Paper tape. Punch cards. Cassette tapes. Floppy discs. CDs. Hard drives. Now SSDs — solid state hard drives. The biggest technological advances in the past 50 years have been the personal computer and the internet. You can communicate with people all around the globe at any time.
WACOAN: Technology aside, what do you think are some of the challenges facing today’s students?
Flowers: Teaching critical thinking was and still is key; that’s a higher level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. You give students a task and let them figure out how to achieve the level of learning they want. Like in robotics, you have a set of outcomes that you have to figure out how to build, and I’m just there to facilitate.
Learning common sense is a big one. I lead with the questions of ‘Why did you do something this way? What did you hope to achieve? Was that the best course of action?’ Students have issues with focus and attention span, mostly because of the influence of social media, where they get immediate feedback. In my opinion, social media has created a big problem for society. In real life, you just have to take things one day at a time and put one foot in front of the other. And then stick to it. I call this the TikTok generation because everything is so short, fast and immediate.
WACOAN: What kind of teacher do you strive to be?
Flowers: A teacher who facilitates the learning process. You learn by doing. I used to say that ‘Perfect practice makes perfect,’ and now it’s more like ‘Practice makes habit.’
WACOAN: Over the years, you’ve taught accelerated Algebra, trigonometry, pre-calculus, physics, advanced computer science, computer programming, physics, multimedia, photography and webpage design. Are there any favorites in there?
Flowers: I love mentoring robotics because of the technical aspects and the hands-on experience it affords the students; it’s very analytical. And I love multimedia, because it uses the other side of the brain, the creative side that forces students to think differently.
WACOAN: The administration at Vanguard tells me you’ve taught more than 1,300 students over your career and there’s a long list of highly successful professionals who once sat in your classroom. How does that make you feel?
Flowers: I think I must be doing something right. I ran into a former student at the Extraco [Events] Center not long ago — I’m good at recognizing faces, if not always names — and he said, ‘Thank you for caring, for pushing and coaching me beyond where I thought I could go.’ It’s my most challenging students I’m most proud of, though I’m also really proud of the successful ones. Almost anyone can be successful if you give them enough time and support.
WACOAN: What about retirement some day? What might that look like?
Flowers: Undecided. Maybe I’ll go to part-time before fully retiring. I just can’t walk away from technology, and Vanguard will always be part of my life! I’ll probably work in the yard and fix things around the house that I don’t have time to get to during a normal school year. And maybe I need to find a hobby.
Joe Flowers’ Legacy in His Students’ Words
“Mr. Flowers taught me three different computer programming languages. I majored in Electrical Engineering in college and was one of the few EEs on my team at HP (my first job out of college) who could program. Eventually, the work I did turned into programming, and I was one of the few programmers who knew how the hardware actually worked. Mr. Flowers taught me how to keep trying and learn from failure.”
Reuel Nash (1973-74 student) worked in the ’90s with the developers who invented the GPS technology that became Google Earth. He’s worked in imagery at Google Earth for 16 years.
“Joe Flowers’ proactive curiosity in new technologies set an example for us, demonstrating that learning is something that shouldn’t stop with graduation, but could continue our entire lives. He made us feel like there was an authority figure who believed in us so much that he’d trust us with new tools, and then ask us to teach him and our peers what we could do with them. In the early ’90s (back before any of us had cell phones), Mr. Flowers was already thinking about the internet and the importance that computers would soon play in all of our lives.”
Peter DeBruge (1990-91 student) is the chief film critic for Variety magazine in Los Angeles.
“Mr. Flowers teaches and treats every student like the individual they are. He spent countless hours with me after school to ensure I understood the material. I owe him a lot for helping me gain the confidence necessary to be successful in college and in the medical field.”
Amber Daniel (1998-2000 student) is a Neuro Physical Therapist Assistant in Fort Worth.
“Mr. Flowers taught me more about life than anyone else; he taught me to forge my own path and how to be a good man. My professors at both Texas Tech and Baylor have all remarked on my ability to seek information and absorb it. Every door I’ve opened and opportunity I have received was because he took a chance on me all those years ago, and no amount of words can ever express my gratitude for it.”
Trevor Hickok (2017-19 student) is pursuing a PhD in Mechanical Engineering at Baylor University.
“The most important thing I’ve learned from Mr. Flowers is how to dig into things I enjoy and ask questions I never would have thought of myself. He helped me to learn more about AI and other things I’m interested in.”
Stratton McEachern is currently a ninth grader at Vanguard and hopes to become an aerospace engineer.