As the representative of an often thankless profession, Charlotte history teacher James Ford spent the past year engulfed in honors, applause and attention.
But as he sat in a hotel room in Raleigh last winter, waiting to speak to yet another group as North Carolina’s teacher of the year, Ford felt heartsick.
He stared at his TV as Ferguson, Mo., erupted in riots. A grand jury had decided not to indict a white police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black man.
For months Ford had struggled. He wanted to keep the spotlight on teachers. He prided himself on being able to connect with all kinds of people. When he kept his mouth shut about the racial turmoil shaking America, he felt dishonest.
So he wrote a blog post titled “Silence Is Betrayal.”
“Too often the rights of black people are disproportionately violated and unprotected,” he wrote. “The acknowledgment of this truth will make us free, but before that it will make us flinch. ... It will make us cry. It will make us uncomfortable, but in the end it will make us better.”
That post was another step in the evolution of Charlotte’s best-known teacher, who also happens to be a minister, a writer, a husband, a father and, increasingly, an activist for racial justice and understanding. And he’s only 34.
“I have a God-ordained responsibility to speak truth,” he said recently. “I can’t not be black, right? I’m going to speak from that perspective.”
Just back from a tour of Singapore, his last perk as the 2014-15 state teacher of the year, Ford is about to begin a new role. As the newest employee of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, an education research and advocacy group, he’ll help expand a network that supports new teachers and develop a policy agenda to turn around the state’s chronically struggling schools.
“From the first time I met him, I was just struck by how smart he was and how passionate and authentic about education,” forum President Keith Poston said. “You can’t fake authenticity.”
The job means Ford is leaving the classroom after only five years, including four at Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Garinger High. But the way he sees it, he’s always teaching. He just keeps changing how he does it.
A rocky start
Growing up in Rockford, Ill., Ford wasn’t charging down the path to academic stardom.
Ford – the middle child of James Ford Sr., a juvenile detention officer, and Erma Ford, who worked for the local school district – was sandwiched between two sisters who were strong scholars, his mom recalls.
Jimmy showed a deep mind, she says, but he didn’t always finish his homework. Or remember to turn it in when he did. His gift of gab, which became an asset when he was in front of a classroom, got him in trouble when he was supposed to be listening.
“I assured him he was just as intelligent as his sisters. He would find his niche. His recognition would come in college and after,” Erma Ford recalls. “I kept praying: ‘OK, dear Lord, I put it out there. Let it be right.’”
In middle school, he was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. Medication and organizational skills improved his focus, his mother says.
James Ford remembers thriving when he enrolled in a creative arts magnet, where he developed his talent for acting and music.
In high school, he was still a lackluster student, he says. That changed when he took 11th grade English. The story of Mr. Stokes became familiar to people who heard Ford speak during his tour representing North Carolina’s teachers.
“I was playing around, being disrespectful,” Ford says. Mr. Stokes called him into the hall and gave him a talk: “I know you’re pretending to be something you’re not. I can tell you’re smart. I can teach you a lot if you listen.”
Ford set out to show he could live up to that vision. Mr. Stokes didn’t just teach English, Ford says. He taught life.
“I’ve always wanted to be Mr. Stokes to my students,” Ford says.
Path to teaching
Ernest Stokes, who is 74 years old and still teaching in Rockford, says he has inspired several future teachers. At first, Ford wasn’t among them.
Ford, a mass communications major at Illinois State University, started his own campus newspaper and thought about becoming a reporter. He shifted gears and worked as a school truancy officer, then ran a program for teens at risk of dropping out. Like his mother and one sister, he was ordained as an African Methodist Episcopal minister.
In 2009, he earned a master’s in teaching from Rockford College and got a job teaching in his hometown.
The next year, he and his wife, Barbara Konadu-Ford, a social worker, decided to move with their two young children to a home with warmer weather and a healthier economy.
They visited Charlotte after seeing it listed in Black Enterprise magazine. “We fell in love,” Ford says. They bought a home in northeast Charlotte’s Old Stone Crossing neighborhood and moved before they found jobs.
He was quickly hired at Garinger, an east Charlotte high school where most students are black or Hispanic and come from low-income homes, and she went to work for Mecklenburg County’s Department of Social Services.
A magical year
By his third year teaching world history at Garinger, Ford had hit his stride. He remembers spending the summer of 2012 planning activities that would bring his lessons to life – things like scattering candies on the floor, letting his students grab for them and relating that to the international struggle over natural resources.
He used his gift for music and language to create “rap reviews” that would help his students memorize concepts for exams.
“That year was magical,” Ford says with a smile. “That’s when things took off.”
In April 2013, he was named Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s teacher of the year. A year later he won the state award, which meant he would spend 2014-15 as a roving ambassador for teachers.
“I told my wife, I said, ‘Nah, I don’t want to leave the classroom,’” he says.
But the chance to reach bigger audiences grew on him.
People seemed eager to hear what he had to say. Teachers thanked him for being their voice. He got to know the governor and local lawmakers and felt like he had a gift for communicating across political and personal boundaries.
“Maybe,” he thought, “I’m meant to do something a little bit broader in scale.”
Poston, the Public School Forum head, was thinking the same thing.
As state teacher of the year, Ford attended weekly education policy meetings at the forum’s Raleigh office, and Poston often saw Ford in action at other events. He noticed that Ford seemed equally at ease with students, teachers, politicians and corporate leaders.
“It’s a rare talent in a polarized political environment to navigate and circulate the way he has,” Poston said.
Ford, meanwhile, was venturing into ever more sensitive turf. His post-Ferguson blog was “kind of my coming out party,” he says. He began posting more about racial issues on social media.
After nine people were gunned down in June at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, Ford was distressed that people seemed reluctant to call it racial terrorism. He wrote a piece for the July issue of Charlotte magazine agonizing over the nation’s fear of confronting racism.
“When racism comes proudly marching down the sidewalks of our lives, are we expected to step aside, lower our gaze, and tip our hats in submission?” his article asked. “If this horrific act demonstrates nothing else it is that there are life-and-death consequences for our failure to talk about this.”
As Charlotteans held forums and talks in the aftermath of the Charleston killings, Ford worked with his pastor at Sanctuary Charlotte Church to convene a coalition on moving from words to action.
Poston says none of that deterred him from offering Ford a job. He wants someone who can talk bluntly about the role of race and poverty in academic failure while also working toward solutions. “We hired the whole package,” he said.
For Ford, the biggest issue was that he wasn’t willing to move. That was simple enough: As the eighth staff member of the forum, Ford will stay in Charlotte and do some traveling – no doubt less than he’s done in the past year.
Pushing five carts
To get a sense of the pace Ford sets, consider his recent schedule. He hosted the race forum at Sanctuary on a Thursday night and got on a plane for Singapore Friday morning. He got home last week and began preparing for his new job.
He’s also writing a book, a mix of memoir and advice. He’s sorting through everything he learned touring schools in Singapore. And he’s eager to take part in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ student assignment review.
“We have an opportunity to get it right. We’ve gotten it right before,” he said. “The long-range model has to be for everybody to embrace the benefit of integrated schools.”
Ford compares his lifestyle to moving five shopping carts at a time: You can’t push them all at once, but you dash from one to the other, keeping them all rolling.
Despite the hectic pace, he says the most important thing is family time. Their daughter, Zahara, is 9 now. Son Zaddik is 6.
Oh, and the Fords are expecting another delivery in September.
In addition to being the teacher of the year for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools for 2013-14 and North Carolina for 2014-15, James Ford received these honors:
▪ National Alliance of Black School Educators teacher of the year.
▪ Charlotte magazine Charlottean of the year.
▪ Charlotte Post Foundation teacher of the year.
▪ Mosaic Award from the nonprofit Behailu Academy, which aims to help young people find a voice through visual, media and performing arts.