Garinger High School history teacher and North Carolina 2014 Teacher of the Year James Ford took a circuitous path to the teaching profession. He started out with the intention of becoming a journalist, then served as a truancy intervention specialist and then a director of a teen center. His love for working with young people led him to become a teacher, and his dedication to his students, colleagues and community has been recognized with awards many times over.
It’s been a year since Ford was named Teacher of the Year, and this week N.C. Policy Watch caught up with him to hear his personal reflections on the last year of what he calls his “exclusive tour of public education.”
Ford, who was in Raleigh Tuesday to participate in the Public School Forum’s Education Policy Fellowship Program, took the time to share how the Teacher of the Year experience has surprised him, how he plans to raise up his voice during his second year as an advisor to the State Board of Education, and what he thinks of some of the education bills lawmakers are currently debating.
NCPW: What has surprised you the most about serving as a North Carolina Teacher of the Year?
Ford: What surprised me most was how much I didn’t know, I guess you could say. When you sit on the State Board and you see how the sausage gets made, as far as the cliché goes, how the decisions get handed down, all the different parts and portals of the bureaucracy that create the laws that we enact in the classroom—that’s been really revealing. So I’d say that’s been surprising for me.
NCPW: Teachers of the Year sit on the State Board of Education for two years in an advisory role. Do you feel that the teachers who come to that table are really heard? And given what you’ve learned in your first year, how might you anticipate functioning differently in your advisory capacity, going forward?
Ford: I do feel like teachers who sit on the State Board are heard. Because as well-intentioned and as earnest as all those board members are, there aren’t many public school educators there that are currently in that capacity. So they’re hungry for authentic teacher voices. And when we do speak — first of all, we’re encouraged to speak – and when we do speak, they listen. So that has been pleasant.
For next year in terms of advocacy, I have a much richer, deeper understanding of the subject matter. Before, I think I was confident in offering a classroom perspective. But given this year, this wonderful tour, given completion of my coursework in educational leadership, I have the academic understanding of some of those things as well. I think I’m prepared to offer some insights, some fresh ideas, and definitely I feel emboldened to speak up more, and I know how to advocate even when the microphone is off.
NCPW: There are many bills moving through the legislature now dealing with education. What are your thoughts on a bill  that would seek to limit teachers’ political activities during working hours ?
Ford: I think we can all agree that no teacher or anybody who’s a civil servant should be involved in partisan behavior especially during the work hours or while they’re on the clock, so to speak.
My concern is the intention behind the bill – what is the spirit behind that proposed law and what is the message that it is communicating to educators? Is it meant as a smoke signal to discourage teacher advocacy, which I think would be a mistake since no one knows better what needs to be done in education than those on the front lines. So I have concerns and questions about the motivations behind that bill.
NCPW: Personal education plans (PEPs) for students at-risk of failure have become a hot topic this year as lawmakers seek to end their existence , citing them as unnecessary paperwork that have failed to be useful. What are your thoughts?
Ford: I can’t say that there’s one definitive teacher perspective on PEPs. Even amongst us in the Education Policy Fellowship program, we discussed [PEPs], and we were all over the map. Some thought that it should be retained as is and it does very good work, and some felt that although the intention behind PEPs was good, the execution is flawed and that it does end up manifesting itself as more paperwork.
Personally, I do think that you have to do something to ensure that the kids who are on the margins are receiving interventions to help lift them up. I’m not certain whether the PEPs are proven to be the most effective vehicle for that. Like anything else, any law is only as good as its implementation.
NCPW: Another piece of legislation scheduled to be debated this week would make it a felony for a student to assault a teacher .
Ford: There are some nuances to that one that I think most people aren’t looking at.
I teach at a high poverty, urban school — and so all the problems that tend to be associated with those things are present. I think it’s obvious everyone should be held accountable for their actions and assault on a teacher should not be tolerated, but I’m concerned because we already have an incredibly punitive approach to discipline. We have existing gaps in discipline demarcated by race — and so until you can address that, I can see that inevitably you’re just fueling that school-to-prison pipeline.
NCPW: Let’s say you are a lawmaker right now. What are some of the kinds of things you’d be proactively pushing to help public schools?
Teacher compensation and teacher empowerment.
There’s a scarcity of teachers, so you have to do something to incentivize this profession, you have to raise the luster of it and part of that is about compensation. Making it appear to be viable, making it appear to be competitive in terms of salary and support.
We also need to look at the populations in North Carolina that are continually the most vulnerable. When you look at the A-F school grading scale, which needs to be tweaked…the schools that are failing are high poverty schools. [The school grades] are overwhelmingly, strongly correlated to income.
And we need to look at our students of color, our English language learners, and we need to figure out how we are going to work with our immigrant populations to make sure that they have the resources that they need to be successful as well.
Lastly, we need to start making intentional efforts about recruiting not just top quality teachers, but specifically targeting teachers of color. Our teacher workforce needs to reflect the constituency that we serve.
Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-348-5898 or [email protected] .