Each week on Education Matters, we offer a “Final Word,” from our host, Dr. Mary Ann Wolf, offering commentary on the state of our public schools. This week, as we collectively face another very challenging time in our schools, in our communities, and across our nation, we want to lift up the voices of some of our state’s amazing educators. 

Please take a moment to read the words of our 2021 Burroughs Wellcome Fund Regional Teachers of the Year. Hear their concerns, their words of motivation for their fellow teachers and communities, and their calls to action.

Eugenia Floyd, 2021 Burroughs Wellcome Fund North Carolina Teacher of the Year, North Central Region Teacher of the Year, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools

To the leaders of North Carolina, both the legislative leaders or the leaders within the field of education, I invite you to my classroom, I invite you to the classrooms of North Carolina, I invite you to follow and watch our teachers working hard across the state giving their absolute best, swallowing their own personal struggles, their own personal sacrifices, and putting it all in the table for kids each and every day. 

We want you to see what’s going on, we want you to be there with us so that you have an even greater understanding of what we’re experiencing — the joys and even some of the things that are needed as well. When I think about my community, we know that the school is the pivotal point, it is the place where everything can happen for our community, where everything begins; what is going to become a business, or who is going to become the future educators of our community. It is a critical place, and for my community and for our business owners and our mayors, and all of our public officials, I also encourage you to show up as well. Schools are places that you are investing in. I want you to bring your genius into my classroom and I want you to tell kids how great your job is. Every child in North Carolina and in the United States has a right to see themselves in their education and in their curriculum and they also have the right to be able to have opportunities to see what they could be. I invite all of my community partners, business leaders, and everybody to come to the school. Lastly to my educators, I want educators to always and forever remember who you work for, you don’t work for anyone else but children. And I don’t even think I need to say anything after that. You do what is best for the children in that classroom. 

Nicole Rivers, Sandhills North Carolina 2021 Regional Teacher of the Year, Cumberland County Schools

I teach English at Gray’s Creek High School in Cumberland County Schools. I teach 11th graders and I love it — and I love them. One thing that I want people to know is that if we all want change, then we have to place this demand on society — and we have to place this  demand on every part of it, not just one part. So for teachers, we’ve had a lot of demands put on us over the years for the well-being of our students and we’ve done the best we can to meet those demands. Every time that bar is raised higher, we stretch to reach it. 

As parents — and I have children in the public school system — what am I doing to support my students and their teachers and help them learn what they need to learn? I have to put a demand on myself as a parent because it’s not just the job of the teachers to educate my child, that is my primary job as well. As businesses, we are growing their future workers. Are businesses pouring into students by opening up internships and opening up opportunities and helping us take the classrooms out of the four walls by opening up their doors and their industry so our kids have exposure? Are we putting these demands on every part of our society? Because every part of our society benefits from well-educated, well-rounded, whole, healthy and socially and emotionally balanced children. Every part of our society owes our students something, and so we need to put a demand on ourselves and on everyone else to say hey, let’s get together and let’s do what we can to help our children.

Kelly Poquette, Piedmont Triad North Carolina 2021 Regional Teacher of the Year, Alamance-Burlington School System

For parents, I want you to know that we love your children, and I think almost more than that, we respect your children and in turn we love and respect you. Just know that we are here for your children and we are here for you — and if you have questions, ask us! We want to find out how we can best support your student, because your student’s success is our community’s success— and, is our state’s success. Just remember that we are on the same team and we are working together to build a community.

Jennie Bryan, Southeastern North Carolina 2021 Regional Teacher of the Year, Brunswick County Schools 

This is speaking to those folks who might be looking for a career change or might be looking to start a career —  come join us, come work alongside us! Even if it doesn’t look like going to get your teaching license, maybe it looks like becoming a substitute, or a volunteer in your child’s classroom. Partner with us — we would welcome you with open arms into this really important work that we do.

Erin Ellington, Northwest North Carolina 2021 Regional Teacher of the Year, Watauga County: I am fortunate to teach at Mabel and Parkway Schools here in Watauga County. I teach K-8 music, so I see almost everybody in both of my schools. Just two little pieces of advice, one for families and one for educators.

Families: We can’t do it without you, even if that means a one-liner email thanking a teacher for something, even if that means a “hey” in the carpool line — I see you. We’re putting so much out into the world and sometimes you don’t know what’s going on or if anything is getting through to anybody, and so just those little tiny things make a huge difference. Families, thank you, thank you, thank you for your support. 

Educators: I had no idea before this role about anything policy and decision-making, but I did have a lot of complaints about those decisions that were being made. And so even though it’s a lot of extra work, even though it’s kind of something that you have to learn yourself — find a way to get involved with your legislators, invite them into your classroom, invite them into your schools, invite them into  your district. 

Susanna Cerrato, Western North Carolina 2021 Regional Teacher of the Year, Asheville City Schools: 

In teaching third grade, I have my professional learning community and I sometimes forget that I have a responsibility to advocate for anything outside of these four walls. I think as teachers and honestly as families, I say this as a parent of a first-grader myself, I think it’s more comfortable and more logical to stay on your path and advocate for yourself and your students. But something that being a part of this group [of NC Regional Teachers of the Year] has given me both personally and professionally is the gift of collective advocacy and the power of unifying into one and seeing how far-reaching that one unified voice can become. I think that I’d like to urge educators to not be afraid to become that advocate because we are the ones who know how legislation impacts our classrooms and our students. We are the ones who know what lower compensation does to our communities and our ability to serve in the community we live in. We know how these things impact education — so I would like to encourage educators to seize any opportunity to be an advocate beyond just your classrooms and four walls. Get to know your school board, look for opportunities to organize in your school building. Things begin locally — and change happens locally — and teachers have so much power when they find a group with whom they can advocate.

Cece Sizoo-Roberson, Southwest North Carolina 2021 Regional Teacher of the Year, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools: 

Every single teacher needs a group of people that supports them and that pushes them and that challenges them — and agrees with them and then disagrees with them. I think too often we surround ourselves with people that think just like us and then we are just talking to ourselves and we’re not challenged. 

You need to find yourself a group of intelligent passionate educators and you need to stay connected with them because in the moments when you don’t want to be passionate anymore, all it takes is a text to any one of these people and your fuel is refired. Every teacher needs that — and you can’t be the best for your kids if you don’t have that for yourself, so get yourself out there, find some people, and don’t make it people who are going to support you in your moments of negativity make it people who are going to push you out of them.

Jen Attkisson, Northeast North Carolina 2021 Regional Teacher of the Year, Edenton-Chowan Schools: 

I teach first grade at White Oak Elementary in Edenton in the first grade classroom. You find joy every day and that the happiness of coming back from our break and the love that I have felt within these four walls has just been amazing and that is part of what fills my cup. 

Seek out educators, seek out the passionate people in your building and in your district and even across your region, find people who lift you up and challenge you to make a change. This group right here, our [Regional Teachers of the Year] has made an amazing influence on me personally and professionally. I think we have been a true example of how a network can really work across our state to reach all of the kids in North Carolina. It has been enlightening both personally and professionally and even within my classroom, my kids when I tell them that we have something coming up, “oh you’re going to work with your teacher friends that live somewhere else in North Carolina,” and we’ve found it on the map and it’s just been wonderful, it’s been eye-opening to me to see how things operate in other parts of the state which helps me better serve where I am as well. 

I think it’s important for all teachers to have that narrative of what education is like across our state. 

Jeremy White, Charter School North Carolina 2021 Regional Teacher of the Year, West Lake Preparatory Academy: 

As we’ve been going through the pandemic, I’ve always come with The Four Agreements — which is do your best, be impeccable with your words, don’t take anything personal, and don’t assume. 

I think we as teachers, and as a community, and as parents — we have to get out of this mindset of “those kids,” “those parents,” “those teachers.” When everyone succeeds, when everyone from everywhere succeeds, we all succeed. There’s no competition, I’m not worried about having better reading scores than my teammate, if my teammate is getting her kids where they need to be, that’s great for me, that’s great for my kids, that’s great for me to learn from. 

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