Skip to content

Apex teacher calls on fellow educators to accept challenges

Earlier this year, I spent the weekend in Charlotte at the Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teachers and Teaching (ECET2) Convening with more than 100 passionate educators from across the state. I spent months working with the planning committee recommending and searching for speakers and folks to share resources with attendees.

I was asked by one of the fearless leaders of the planning team, a colleague whom I highly respect as a teacher leader, to give a “Cultivate a Calling” talk. I was hesitant to say the least. As a third year teacher, I’d never shared any insights or inspirational anecdotes in a professional setting. I wasn’t sure if I was ready, but I love a challenge.

Naturally, my fifteen-minute TEDx style talk would highlight the art of embracing challenges. I used a series of short stories, with the help of fun memes and gifs, to share how facing challenges, even when I was “a little not ready,” led me on an imperfect journey to finding my calling as a special educator and teacher leader.

I remember challenging myself physically and mentally when I tried out for the varsity soccer team as a freshman in high school after being told freshmen never made the team. I proudly made the team and my soccer skills improved dramatically, leading me to a short-lived stint on my college’s soccer team. Soon after, as an upperclassman, I challenged myself academically by enrolling in AP classes and taking classes at the local community college, receiving credit for each class taken and giving me the opportunity to take more electives as a college student as well as changing my academic trajectory.

Later, during my senior year of college, I decided to add a major — one with a required exit exam for graduation — challenging myself to learn new content in a short period of time. Quite frankly, I challenged myself to graduate on time. Needless to say, I did graduate on time, with two degrees to boot. Then an unexpected challenge…

Dr. O’Dekirk asked me if I ever had an interest in teaching. I quickly retorted with an emphatic “No!” He reviewed some of my experiences as an undergraduate student… A mentor and youth leader to middle school and high school students for 4 years. A team member at the Meredith Autism program, implementing ABA practices as early interventions for preschoolers with autism. A PlayWorks coach, providing organized recess to Title I schools in Durham. Volunteer tutor at local community centers.

Although I was angry at myself for never connecting the dots in my own experience, Dr. O’Dekirk helped me recognize the first steps toward cultivating my calling by challenging me to visit Meredith’s Education department and explore the MAT program. To make a long story short, I accepted his challenge and fell in love with becoming a teacher. This was June 2013. Surely I couldn’t take the GRE and complete an application before the July 15 deadline. Well, I did, and I started the MAT program in August 2013.

I graduated in December 2014 and taught one semester as a middle school CCR teacher, not a challenge I could conquer for more than one semester.

“Being a new teacher is like trying to fly an airplane while building it.” – Rick Smith

I spent the summer before my first full year of teaching gathering “parts” — lesson plans, ideas and advice from seasoned teachers, supplies, books — to get ready for my first flight as a teacher. Unfortunately, the parts didn’t arrive like a model airplane with step-by-step instructions and tips for successful flight.

On the first day of school, I didn’t feel ready to fly the plane, but my departure time had arrived. Then I met Kroy. He felt like a kid determined to set my plane on fire as I was still figuring out how to build it. Kroy was a senior when we met and needed to pass each of his eight classes to graduate the following June. He worked 20 to 30 hours each week, took care of his little sister, and struggled with a learning disability. I received daily emails from his teachers — Kroy’s sleeping in class, he’s missing five assignments, he failed a math quiz. Did they expect me to make sure this dude passed his classes and graduated on time? I couldn’t be expected to turn Kroy’s grades around in 10 months. But I was and I accepted the challenge.

Each day in class, he asked me to go to the vending machine. I wasn’t supposed to allow that, but sometimes you need a caffeinated beverage to get through math. I spent every single day with Kroy working one-on-one on Math 3. It was a challenge for both of us. I started buying him his favorite flavors of Mountain Dew as a reward for turning in math homework.

In addition to math, writing was a big challenge for Kroy. If Kroy had an important writing assignment for English IV or Civics, he avoided it like the plague. But what he didn’t avoid was Haribo gummy bears. So I started bringing gummy bears to class on writing days. For every section completed, we’d share a handful of gummy bears. It took a lot of Mountain Dew and gummy bears, and a little bit of summer school, but Kroy received his diploma. As he danced across the stage to receive his diploma, his sense of accomplishment was reflected in my bright smile and silent, happy tears. This young man challenged me in a way nothing had ever challenged me before. He forced me to think about the whole child. He challenged me to differentiate my instruction. He inadvertently challenged me to be a dedicated advocate. The 2015-16 school year with Kroy was a challenge that changed me, for the better. I felt like I was starting to fly.

I didn’t feel like it was the “right time” to take on additional activities as I was just beginning my career as an educator; but again, I like a challenge, so I plugged into professional networks and sought any and every opportunity to learn something new.

I joined NCAE and began working with my local association to build a professional learning network for early career educators by partnering with leadership at the district-level. I become engaged in online professional networks such as, the #EduColor Movement, a collaborative of educators of color aimed at elevating teacher voices on systemic issues in educational justice and equity. I attend EdCamps on my free Saturdays here and there to engage in teacher-led professional development and learn from colleagues and leaders in my area.

I continued to participate in the Beginning Teacher Leadership Network through the Public School Forum of North Carolina and WakeEd Partnership. This network provides BTs the opportunity to understand education policy and challenges them to engage in policy debates, something I wrote about it previously here.

Last year, the BTLN cohorts participated in a policy project which allowed us to research a policy issue we were passionate about and create a product or presentation to share with state legislators lobbying our solutions to controversial legislation. How daunting to be a new teacher speaking to the folks in power and challenging their positions? Honestly, we were shaking in our boots. But we had the support of teacher leaders James Ford and Joanna Schimizzi. At the end of our legislative day, we were successful in our conversations with policymakers and felt a great sense of pride for hard work.

This series of challenges have created this beautiful domino effect that is my teaching journey. Fearlessly accepting challenges from mentors, students, and other education professionals has led me to cultivate this calling. But most of all, stepping out of my comfort zone and challenging myself to step into the classroom, has allowed me to discover my life’s purpose.

I ended my Cultivate a Calling at ECET2 with a call to action, or rather a call to accepting challenges. So to you, my fellow education warriors, do not let the challenge of teaching overwhelm you. New teachers, you may still be assembling your plane, but you are flying. Ask the veteran teachers in the room and at your school to join your flight crew. Seasoned teachers, whether your plane is in pristine condition or needs a tune up, continue to challenge yourself within your classroom walls and beyond those walls.

“Challenge is the pathway to engagement and progress in our lives. But not all challenges are created equal. Some challenges make us feel alive, engaged, connected, and fulfilled. Others simply overwhelm us. Knowing the difference as you set bigger and bolder challenges for yourself is critical to your sanity, success, and satisfaction.” – Brendon Burchard

Christina Spears

Christina Spears is a special education teacher at Apex Friendship High School in Wake County. By day, Christina co-teaches English and serves students with IEPs through specialized instruction. By night, she leads programs in her area that support early career educators by immersing them in education policy and professional development. And every day, she’s challenging the status quo by demanding equitable education for her students.