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Cross-Boundary Leader: James Ford (NC EPFP 14-15)

Posted By Shaina Cook, Monday, December 7, 2015


Cross-Boundary Leader

James Ford (NC EPFP 14-15)

James Ford is the 2014 North Carolina Teacher of the Year and teaches ninth-grade world history in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. During his year as Teacher of the Year, he traveled around North Carolina as an ambassador for more than 95,000 teachers in the state, and served as an advisor to the State Board of Education and a board member of the North Carolina Public School Forum. He was also named the 2013 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Teacher of the Year and the 2013 North Carolina Southwest Regional Teacher of the Year. Ford originally intended to pursue a career in journalism, but became a teacher after working as a truancy intervention specialist and the director of a teen center for at-risk youth.

Teacher of the Year Opportunities

The most interesting experience for me as Teacher of the Year was sitting on the State Board of Education. It was fascinating to go from learning about policy as a classroom teacher to advising the state board that helps to create that policy. I enjoyed seeing what these ideas look like and how they change as they go through the pipeline.

Traveling around the state showed me a lot and revealed that teaching looks very different depending on where you are. There are so many moving parts that affect teaching and education, from geography to constituency to district funding levels, and the challenge and opportunity is that there is no one way to do it right. Many teachers across North Carolina are digging deep into their trick bag and pulling out all the stops to make sure their students are achieving, and it was wonderful to have the chance to see the multitude of ways this plays out in different classrooms and schools. The fact that we all do the same job but are able to do it in such different ways is magical.

Working in a Diverse, Urban High School

I think the most surprising thing about the students that I work with is that they are absolutely brilliant. They come to us not being devoid of knowledge, but embodying and exhibiting unique skill sets and talents that are often overlooked in a school setting. Some students may have deficiencies and, in part because they are in an urban school, they often get written off as being behind or not being able to achieve, which affects how they see themselves as students. In reality, they are very gifted and grateful for educators who see the best in them, who challenge them, who care about them, and who really demonstrate true love for them as a person and their well-being.

Working in this environment comes with challenges as well, including the effects of a high concentration of poverty around our school. We also deal with the inherent challenges of educational equity on a daily basis, as many of these students don’t necessarily have the same level of opportunity as their peers. I think we need to collectively do a better job of accounting for what happens outside the classroom and how that impacts what happens inside to ensure these students have the best opportunity to succeed.

Entering the Teaching Profession

Despite all of the baggage that comes with becoming a teacher—low pay, scarce resources, lack of regard and respect—I felt called to it, and it has proven to be one of the best decisions I’ve made. I fell in love with something I didn’t know I had a desire for; it doesn’t feel like work to me. There are a lot of things that might dissuade people from entering the profession, but at the end of the day, it’s about fulfilling your personal calling. If that calling is to serve children through education, then you should chase after it with reckless abandon.

Cross-Boundary Leadership and Challenges

I think leading across boundaries is being able to get along with people from different sectors and remaining focused on your goal. Successful leadership also involves learning how to disagree without being disagreeable or disrespectful and leading by example. I really feel like something I was able to accomplish as Teacher of the Year was to be a connector in a polarizing atmosphere in state politics. I didn’t play into the divisiveness and was able to have candid, friendly, and respectful conversations with people who may not have shared my political beliefs.

A big challenge in leadership is that not everyone is solution-oriented. For some people, their objective is to stick to their position come hell or high water, even if it might not move the conversation forward. For me, the objective is to help kids and entertain ideas of how to do that, even if they might diverge from my own views. Leadership is about give and take, and at the end of the day, we all have to compromise to reach shared goals.

Leadership Lessons Learned

The biggest leadership lesson I’ve learned is to define my principles and live them. In the classroom, I believe this is especially critical when teaching content. It’s important to pull out lessons and highlight the central ideas and principles to students. Outside the classroom, it’s about figuring out how you can fulfill your principles while still being willing to compromise.

EPFP Experience and Value

EPFP totally changed my outlook on education. I quickly realized that it was an excellent opportunity for teachers to better understand what shapes the world we work in. It was great being in the company of the people who made decisions that impacted my work and learning more about the process behind those decisions. From the very first session, I felt empowered because I was able to talk candidly, provide my perspective as a teacher, and ask questions; I felt like I could go into a room with anyone and have a sophisticated conversation about education policy. I know that I’m now a better educator because of the well-rounded knowledge I gained during my experience as an EPFP Fellow.

I truly believe that EPFP has the potential to transform the role of teachers. “Teacher leader” is a buzzword in education, but not many programs adequately prepare teachers for that position. EPFP positions teachers who have ambition to learn, know, and do more to be lifted into the leadership space and to have the opportunity to take on leadership roles. I think if more teachers participated in EPFP, it could become a program that transforms who teachers are and what teaching is.


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