Marlon Lee started at Clayton High teaching algebra and business classes. The 6-foot-11 basketball player from St. Augstine’s College and nearby Smithfield-Selma High also was eager to take on after-school roles.
First he was asked to help coach Clayton’s JV girls volleyball team, even though he knew little about the sport. The next year he added assistant coach for boys varsity basketball.
It wasn’t long before he juggled teaching with serving as the head coach of two varsity sports – girls volleyball and girls basketball. His academic role began to change, too.
Twelve years ago Clayton shifted him from the classroom to direct a dropout prevention program created by Johnston County Schools. If you’re getting the idea Lee likes a challenge and doesn’t want to disappoint people who trust him to get the job done, you’re right.
“With my height,” said Lee, “people look at me anyway, so why not do something in a positive light?”
Sixteen years later, he’s still adding roles and responsibilities – and not just in teaching and coaching.
In 2013, he ran for and was elected to Smithfield Town Council.
Lee grew up in Smithfield and returned home after his college days. He began attending council meetings and was encouraged to run for an open seat.
“A lot of people in Smithfield paved the way for me,” said Lee, who plans to run for re-election in the fall. “I live in east Smithfield, the predominantly black section. After I graduated, a lot of friends and peers didn’t come back to Johnston County. I want to make a difference, and I started doing things in the community. I got involved in organizations.”
He continued: “I don’t call myself a politician. I try to do what’s right for the community. At first, when I got calls from people complaining about this or that, I wondered why I’m doing this? But I think I can make a difference if I stand up for what’s right.”
If that wasn’t enough to keep him busy, the 2016-17 school presented yet another new challenge.
New principal Bennett Jones, who knew Lee from earlier in their careers as teachers and coaches, wanted him for a newly created Dean of Students job involving classroom discipline.
“It meant a lot to me that he was new to the school, he had a new position in mind and he thought of me,” Lee said. “It’s a position to help kids. That’s important to me.”
In Lee, Jones saw a figure both imposing and understanding enough to handle a difficult role. Recent national studies of public schools have revealed respect for teachers declining and discipline problems climbing.
“I’m working mainly as the last line of defense before a kid is sent to the administration,” Lee said. “We try to get the kid back on track rather than send him or her home suspended. We’re here to educate. We don’t want to give up kids.”
He continued: “A lot of teachers don’t have the time or the patience to deal with kids that act up in the classroom. My job is to get information from the kids on what’s going on in their lives and give that information back to the teacher. I let kids know we’re not going to throw you out of here if you make mistakes, but we’re going to hold you accountable. I tell kids I’ve made mistakes. We try to find a better solution.”
It can be a draining job, but he hasn’t sacrificed his passion for coaching. Lee enjoys watching the maturation of his athletes and guiding them. He also credits his JV coaches, Rich Haberkorn in volleyball and Brent Bailey in basketball, with helping him work around time conflicts.
On town council meeting days, he coaches the early JV game before leaving and having his JV coach sit in the varsity coach’s seat.
“We coach our JV and varsity teams together,” he said.
Last fall, Clayton volleyball posted a 21-2 record and won the Greater Neuse River Conference title. His 12 seasons as the Comets’ girls varsity basketball coach have churned out lots of playoff teams, highlighted by the 2009-10 squad that finished as the N.C. High School Athletic Association East Region runner-up with a 28-3 record.
But whatever role he’s filling, Lee tries to remember why he became a teacher and to share it with students and athletes.
“A lot of kids ask me, ‘Why aren’t you in the NBA?’ ” Lee said. “I tell them it was my dream, but I got hurt; I tore my (knee) ACL. I tell them the biggest thing I have in life is an education. I tell them it’s all about how you treat people. Because I have an education, somebody gave me a chance to teach and coach … and now I have another new job.”