On the first day of each ninth-grade world history class he teaches, James Ford dims the lights to the classroom, puts on a stern face, and asks: Why are you guys here?
After brushing aside the common answer of “to get an education,” Ford explains his view of the true reason to study history at Garinger High: The past predicts the future, and being able to interpret events will give you the keys to navigating life.
“They realize, hey, this guy is trying to be authentic,” Ford says. “Kids appreciate that you’re not reading from the script.”
As the first Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teacher to be named N.C. Teacher of the Year since 1970, Ford has been writing his own script for the past year. Since April, he’s been on a whirlwind tour of North Carolina representing its 95,000-plus teachers.
Here’s a typical week: Arrive home from Raleigh just before midnight on a Tuesday. Present a teacher of the year award in Huntersville on Wednesday. Head out to Haywood County for another teacher of the year award on Thursday. In between, mentor a teacher at Olympic High in Charlotte.
Ford’s odometer crossed 10,000 miles for the year early in December.
“It’s worth it,” Ford said. “But man, it’s crazy.”
He presents to roomfuls of business leaders, inspires public school teachers and shakes hands with politicians. He has advised the State Board of Education, including in its debate about how to teach U.S. history. He lobbied the state legislature, seeking pay raises for teachers.
In the meantime, Ford has racked up an impressive list of accolades: a Mosaic Award from the nonprofit Behailu Academy, The Charlotte Post Foundation’s teacher of the year, Charlotte magazine’s “Charlottean of the Year,” and just recently, the National Alliance of Black School Educators’ teacher of the year.
“When James gets in a room with people, you simply believe whatever message he’s trying to impart,” Garinger High Principal Mike Drye said after Ford was named the state teacher of the year. “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.”
All that has given him a big platform to influence education in Charlotte and statewide in 2015.
CMS Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark, who heads the district while the school board decides on a permanent leader, has listed the sputtering pipeline of quality teachers as a top priority. Teacher pay will again be a hot topic as the legislature convenes after a year in which a salary increase that favored younger teachers over more experienced colleagues ruffled feathers.
Ford offers a compelling story on why all that matters.
“You have to explain the relevance of our job,” Ford said. “Most people would not ever argue that education isn’t important. But if you ask them to quantify that, or explain to you why education is important, they probably couldn’t do it.”
Ford says his goal is to maximize the impact he can have on young people. What form will that take next? That’s still up in the air.
The national teacher of the year award will be announced from the White House in April. Ford has as good a shot as anybody.
But failing that, Ford’s tenure as North Carolina’s Teacher of the Year will be over in April. He could return to Garinger High as a teacher. He recently completed his administrator certification, opening up assistant principal or principal positions. He has considered going back to school for a doctorate, and he also has launched a nonprofit foundation, the Be More Foundation, to work with kids living in poverty.
Ford said he might also run for political office.
“If it’s not somehow directly connected to education, I’d be dissatisfied. I wouldn’t be content,” Ford said. “That’s kind of my north star. Whatever I decide to do next, whatever is on the table: Does it still directly impact young people?”