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CMS teachers shift gears from summer stress to classroom energy

The kids change everything.

In the week leading up to Monday’s opening of school, that attitude bubbled up in classrooms around the region.

A summer of conflict is drawing to a close, marked by political friction over public education in North Carolina. There were heated words, protests and talk of walkouts.

Some teachers undoubtedly left the profession. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials say summer resignations are up, though they aren’t yet sure of the reason.

But for those who will open their classrooms Monday morning, the focus is on children.

“They deserve the best from us,” said Erlene Lyde, a chemistry teacher at West Charlotte High. “We have lives in our hands.”

Thousands of educators found their own ways to shift gears and charge up. Here are three stories.

Keep coming back

Lyde is starting her 32nd year of teaching with a new challenge. She has just transferred to West Charlotte, where most students come from low-income homes.

Lyde, a 56-year-old chemistry teacher, has poured her heart into some of CMS’ most challenging schools. She was at Waddell High when the district closed it, then moved to Harding as it went through a tumultuous transition taking in many of Waddell’s teens.

She has weathered years that brought mass layoffs and ever-changing reform efforts.

“Why don’t we leave?” she mused. “For those of us who have found our purpose in life, that is very difficult. That’s what we have given our passion to.”

Lyde is vice president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators, the closest thing North Carolina has to the teacher unions that some Republican legislators characterized as more interested in their own paychecks than students. But Lyde said even if North Carolina “right to work” laws didn’t ban it, she couldn’t imagine striking.

“Especially with the kids I serve, we might be the most constant adults in their lives,” she said. She wants to pass her own work ethic along to students.

“I say to them, ‘I’m going to work hard to support you to excel. I know you can rise to that expectation.’ They have to know that they have earned it. From earning comes that self-confidence to try more.”

Despite this summer’s setbacks, Lyde said, she has also seen how much people care about education, whether it was supporters who wore red to Moral Monday events or the massive pep rally that local businesses hosted for CMS staff Thursday.

As she unpacked boxes and welcomed students at orientation, she said she hopes the support continues.

“I would say, ‘Just say thank you,’ ” Lyde said. “Just say, ‘I appreciate you.’ ”

Finding a voice

Fourth-grade teacher Justin Ashley hoped people would notice when he wrote an open letter to legislators this summer.

Ashley, 28, told how an N.C. Teaching Fellows scholarship gave him an alternative to becoming a Burger King manager or enlisting in the military.

“Visualize your favorite teacher as a child, the one who spoke words of vision and hope into you,” Ashley wrote to House Speaker Thom Tillis. “The one who invested her time, energy and love into your life so that you could become the leader you have grown to be. Do you see her? Now, use your resources to enable teachers just like her to do for others what she did for you.”

When the letter was posted on the Observer’s Your Schools blog and circulated on social media, it drew more than 41,000 views. Ashley was invited to speak at a summer teacher rally and interviewed for TV and radio. He launched an online petition to get Gov. Pat McCrory to spend a day teaching with him at McAlpine Elementary, and a Tillis staffer is lining up a fall meeting.

Ashley, who has been named state Teacher of the Year in history and social studies, said he heard from teachers who talked about resigning or staging a walkout. His message: Please don’t.

“I don’t want our teachers to let short-term frustration prevent their lifelong impacts,” he said. “I don’t want them to walk away from our kids.”

Ashley spent a couple of years as an assistant principal in Union County, then took a pay cut to return to the classroom. Last week he was planning his first-day ice-breaker – it involves toilet paper costumes – and getting his classroom window painted to look like a time-portal. When he brings guest speakers in historical garb, they’ll climb through.

His ongoing experience with democracy in action is likely to pop into class discussions. And he wants to keep reminding colleagues that they don’t have to fret in silence.

“Do what you do (in the classroom) and speak up,” he said. “Work together to be heard.”

A better way?

For the first time in seven years, Matthew Rankin won’t be part of opening day at CMS.

Instead, he greeted students three weeks ago at KIPP Charlotte, a charter school that includes summer session as part of its push to get low-income students ready for college.

Rankin is among a growing number of educators and families exploring whether publicly funded schools run by independent boards can offer better options for kids and teachers.

The 28-year-old said he’s an ardent supporter of public schools, but he isn’t tied to traditional approaches.

Rankin majored in history and political science at UNC Charlotte and got into teaching because he needed a job. When he was hired at the high-poverty Martin Middle School, he discovered a passion for urban education.

He set a goal to run a school serving the neediest kids, and he assumed that meant working his way up to principal. Last year he enrolled in a graduate program at Columbia University to prepare. The main project involves designing a charter school, and he’s starting to think about bringing his plan to life.

Rankin said he was happy at Ashley Park PreK-8 School, his last CMS assignment. But he’s also intrigued by the success the national KIPP charter chain has demonstrated in getting disadvantaged kids ready for college. He took a job coaching teachers at the charter school in northeast Charlotte.

Two days after returning from Columbia classes in New York City, Rankin found himself surrounded by adolescents doing the motivational chants that have come to define the public image of KIPP. And he found his own energy rising along with theirs.

While many talk about young teachers being deterred from the field, Rankin said he’d urge anyone to go for it.

“It will be the most rewarding, toughest thing you’ve ever done,” he said. “But at the end of the day when you put your head on the pillow, you’ll know you did the right thing.”

Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms
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