Three months ago, James Ford was recognized as Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools’ Teacher of the Year. Ford is a 9th grade World History teacher at Garinger High School, one of the school district’s underperforming schools (with a non-graduation rate of nearly 45 percent). Ford has found a way to motivate, encourage, and inspire students who might have fallen asleep in their previous history classes. One of Ford’s first lessons for his students is about Garinger’s history of underperformance and how his 9th grade students must make it their business to immediately begin to re-write the schools’ student performance history. Ford is passionate about teaching and says, “I wake up with a smile on my face, knowing that I actually enjoy my job.” Below is our in-depth conversation about a variety of education-related issues.
Phillips: How and when did you develop your passion for teaching?
Ford: I’m new to the teaching profession with only four years of experience. I entered college with a plan of becoming a journalist. But after I graduated, I learned that print journalism was a dying industry. After I exhausted all reasonable opportunities to find a position in journalism, I decided to do something that I’ve always enjoyed, and that’s working with young people. At first, I started working with “at-risk” children at several non-profit organizations. And then, one day, the light bulb went off! I needed to find a career that allowed me to work with children on a daily basis. After that moment of clarity, I applied to graduate school to obtain a master’s degree in education. Becoming a teacher was the best decision that I’ve made and I have no regrets about pursing my passion.
Phillips: How do you get your students interested in World History?
Ford: The first and most important step is to establish the significance of history. The average student typically rolls their eyes when you mention the subject of history because they think it’s boring. Based on their historical experiences with history class, they are correct in their thinking. My job is to connect the past and the present. I teach my students how history is used on a daily basis. I show them how historical events determine who they choose as friends, their reputation amongst their peers, and what grades they earn on their report card. When they become adults, historical events will be reflected on their credit report, criminal record report, and their resume. Once I get them to understand that they are already actively using history, the students understand that history class has a purpose in the ‘Real World’.
Phillips: Does teaching at a high school labeled “at-risk” make your job harder?
Ford: For the most part, kids are kids, so one group of students isn’t harder than the other. The societal issues can make it harder for the students to learn. I will say that it requires a different set of teaching skills to teach ‘at-risk’ students. Personally, I think it is easier to teach students from a two-parent household, with parents that have disposable income to spend on educational materials, and who have been told that they are smart. My classroom is comprised of students who are the exact polar opposite and school is their sanctuary. Before I can begin to teach the curriculum, I have to establish a rapport with the students and earn their trust. Some days, I am a teacher, while other days, I am a therapist, class manager, or coach. I’m willing to wear all the hats necessary to make a difference in my students’ lives.
Some of the ‘at-risk’ students are thought to be un-teachable but most of the time the students just want to know that you care about their well-being. For me, it’s much more intrinsically rewarding to work with the group of students labeled ‘at-risk’ and prove that they are interested in learning. My students challenge me to become a better teacher and they contributed to me becoming Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools’ Teacher of The Year.
Phillips: What advice do you have for future school teachers?
Ford: First and foremost, we must understand the importance of our profession. Teachers play an important role in society because we are responsible for the education of the next generation of every profession. After we clearly understand the importance of our assignment, then we must constantly fuel our passion to educate and inspire our students. Last, but certainly not least, we must continually seek to master our craft. I think mastery is a journey of self-improvement that begins with seeking advice from other master educators. From my vantage point, teaching young people is a calling that is divinely ordained. If preparing the next generation is your true calling, then I encourage you to pursue this path with vigor. But if you don’t feel called, I suggest that you explore other options.
Phillips: How can the greater community assist your “at risk” students?
Ford: I think it’s important that we all play our part. Everyone doesn’t have the personality type to volunteer to work with ‘at-risk’ students. But we all have gifts and talents that we can share in a variety of venues. In simple terms, chip in when and where you can. Also, when we use the term ‘at-risk’ we place students in a separate category. I challenge members of the greater community to view these students as young community members who are experiencing economic and environmental challenges. When we treat these students as apart of our community as opposed to a separate group, we can begin to find meaningful ways to assist our young community members who find themselves in difficult circumstances.
Phillips: Since the onset of the recent economic recession, large numbers of teachers were terminated due to budget cuts. Do you think teachers should have priority when budget cuts are required?
Ford: Absolutely! Regardless of political party, I question the authenticity of elected officials that claim to be supporters of public education but are in favor of cutting or defunding public education budgets. Teachers are the heartbeat of our nation. We are the only profession that every other profession is dependent upon. Every education cut has a huge potential economic impact on the next generation of students. A decade ago, due to previous budget cuts, courses such as Home Economics, Workshop, Art, and Music were no longer offered. Now we have some adults who don’t know how to cook, lack basic home repair skills, and that don’t appreciate the arts because they weren’t expose to these subjects in school. The budget cuts provide a short-term financial solution but they are creating long-term problems.
Phillips: Do you have any closing comments?
Ford: I would like to thank my wife and children for supporting and inspiring me to strive for the best. Also, I am grateful to Principal Rattley for allowing me to take risks in the classroom and encouraging me to think outside the box. Again, I must thank my fellow colleagues and students for challenging me to continually improve my teaching skills. Before you contacted me, I wasn’t familiar with your magazine, but after learning more about its purpose, I think you all are needed in our community. With that said, I greatly appreciate New Growth Hair Magazine for sharing my passion for teaching with your readers.