James Ford, a Garinger High world history teacher, was named the Burroughs Wellcome North Carolina Teacher of the Year Thursday.
The award is the first time a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teacher has won the honor since the first award was given in 1970, according to a release from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
“I’m floating through the clouds,” he said by phone on the car trip home from the awards ceremony in Cary, sitting shotgun next to his principal, Mike Drye. “It’s a party on wheels right now.”
There were nine nominees from around the state for the honor, and Ford, 33, said he wasn’t expecting his name to be called. “I was floored, I was awestruck. There was nothing going through my mind except, ‘They can’t be serious.’ ”
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He said he was exhilarated, humbled and grateful to speak on behalf of the state’s teachers.
“It’s not often teachers get recognized for what they do, and when you consider the current climate for the teaching profession, this does something to reshape the impression of teachers throughout the state,” he said.
As the state’s teacher of the year, Ford will spend next school year traveling North Carolina as an ambassador for more than 95,000 teachers, CMS said. He’ll serve as an adviser to the State Board of Education for two years and as a board member for the N.C. Public School Forum for one year. The N.C. Department of Public Instruction will sponsor his completion of the Education Policy Fellowship Program.
“It’s bittersweet for us,” said Drye, Garinger’s principal. “It’s sad for Garinger for one year, but … it’s allowing him to be an emissary of what great teaching is.”
Ford teaches ninth-grade world history and is co-leader of the school’s peer mentoring program and the Garinger Cultural Festival. He’s also served as chairman of Garinger’s teacher advisory council and on the world history curriculum writing team.
Ford is a volunteer at McCreesh Place, which is part of Supportive Housing Communities, and is a board of directors member for Behailu Academy, an arts organization that works with youth.
Drye said his teacher is deserving of the new title.
“When James gets in a room with people, you simply believe whatever message he’s trying to impart,” he said. “It’s like he’s talking directly to you. He has a God-given ability to connect with whoever his audience is, and lucky for us, it will be students.”
Ford didn’t start out wanting to be a teacher. He studied print journalism at Illinois State University where he started his own independent paper on campus. But upon graduation, local newspapers were struggling with the transition to online news, and he decided to do nonprofit work.
Ford was drawn to helping kids. He was a truancy intervention specialist in high schools and directed a teen center that offered educational and after-school activities for kids at risk of dropping out of school.
“I said, you know, I wish I could make this a job. And the revelation came to me that this is a job, in teaching. So I said, OK, I’ll be a teacher.”
In 2009, Ford earned his master’s degree in teaching from what is now Rockford University, in the same Illinois town where he was born and raised. After a year of teaching there, he wanted to move somewhere warmer and began working in CMS in 2010. He’s now pursuing a degree in education leadership from Wingate University and is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc.
Instilling a healthy worldview and self-esteem in kids is the best part of the job, he said. Not understanding the importance of education as a youngster has been a big motivator:
“When I finally did figure it out, I said, man, somebody has to go back and tell these kids about it. It was really about me paying it forward,” he said. “It’s remembering who I was at that point and time. … and wanting to be that teacher I never had.”