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‘Inspiring greatness in other people’ — Why Principal of the Year Kisha Clemons became a teacher

Thursday, Sept. 17, was a rainy day in North Carolina. The remnants of Tropical Storm Sally were making their way across the state leaving gray skies and wet roads. Walking into Shuford Elementary, the dull energy brought by the weather lifted. The hum of students finishing their days, teachers in the classroom, and colorful posters of encouragement brought a new light to the afternoon. 

Shuford Elementary is located in Conover, nestled in the center of Catawba County. The school has 450 students and is home to the new Wells Fargo Principal of the Year, Kisha Clemons. We caught up with Clemons to hear about her journey in education and focus for this school year.

New NC Principal of the Year Kisha Clemons in her office at Shuford Elementary School. Alli Lindenberg/EducationNC

Why education?

Teaching is in Clemons’ roots. When asked what inspired her to become an educator, she shared that it’s part of her lineage.

“I am from a family of educators,” Clemons said.

When she was 13 years old, her band teacher left a lasting impact on Clemons, which solidified her dream of becoming an educator at a young age.

“I just started high school, but in that year I was in the marching band and my marching band teacher Mrs. Bolick influenced everything I did from that point on. She inspired me in such a way that even to this day, I talk about it and I share it,” Clemons said. “When I think about her and her influence, that is where it really started for me, wanting to be a part of that, wanting to do that for kids, wanting to inspire greatness.”

When asked how her marching band teacher inspired her, Clemons commented on the relationships she was able to build in the classroom. 

“She was able to love on students but also challenge them in ways that they didn’t know that they could be challenged and then bring them all together to do something bigger than themselves.”

Clemons personal mission came out of that classroom. It is to “inspire greatness in other people.”

Lessons from the pandemic

The pandemic has forced educators to deal with challenge after challenge. Clemons shared that at Shuford they are meeting those challenges head on and are also learning as they address them.

“There are also opportunities for us to think about things a little bit differently,” Clemons said.

Running a school is a team effort normally and even more so during the pandemic. There’s a lot of work behind the scenes, and Clemons wishes everyone could see the effort that goes into making a school run smoothly.

Shuford Elementary School in Conover. Alli Lindenberg/EducationNC

“I don’t know that everyone understands the work, the time, the energy, the thinking, the collaboration that has gone in to provide the best for our kids, and I wish everybody could see that,” Clemons said.

Equity now

The word equity is top of mind during the pandemic, but it’s been on the minds of some educators for a long time. Clemons is one of those educators. She shared that while equity has been a focus for her entire career, this year she will concentrate her energy on it even more so.

“Equity is one of those things that is connected to everything that we do, so you can never get away from it. It’s a part of teaching. It’s a part of leadership. It’s a part of education,” Clemons said.

Personalized learning is another focus for Clemons this year. She’s seen the power of personalized learning at her school come to life in the past few years, especially during the pandemic. Clemons shared that online learning can be a vehicle for personalized learning. Online learning is teaching her and her team a lot, and the challenge of equity is present in these lessons as well.

“It’s more than just providing them with a device and more than just providing them with the internet. It is thinking about when they go home. We’re seeing a different side of the home environment. When we are zooming in with our kids and touching base, we’re getting a better taste or more knowledge about what is going on at home and thinking about things a little bit differently,” Clemons said.

Not all students have taken easily to online learning, which leads to the question: “Why are they not getting work done?” Clemons asked.

With her combined focus on equity and personalized learning, the pandemic is providing ample opportunities for Clemons to put these into practice. Overall, she said educators have to stay flexible.

“I think that what we’re learning is that we constantly have to adapt for children, period. We have to constantly do it. That is our obligation to our kids to provide them the very best.”

Kids are pretty flexible too, Clemons has observed.

“I think it also just demonstrates the power that kids can really do anything you put in front of them if you just give them a chance to do it and provide them support.”

A painted rock in front of Shuford Elementary School. Alli Lindenberg/EducationNC

A team of leaders

When I asked Clemons how she does it, she answered quickly, not alone.

“You can’t do this work as a principal without having great people around you,” she said.

She reflected on the moment she was announced as the Wells Fargo 2020 Principal of the Year: “I was just thinking about all the people that were around me,” she shared.

“You almost think that every principal out there could really receive this honor because they are doing amazing things for their school and their community.”

Alli Lindenberg

Alli Lindenberg is an executive fellow for EducationNC.