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Kenan Teacher Fellows program targets rural educators

At the beginning of August, more than 100 teachers from counties across eastern North Carolina gathered in Greenville to receive training on topics ranging from classroom management to teaching with technology.

The Kenan Fellows Program for Teacher Leadership, which provides internships within different industries to teachers, held their first regional symposium with a goal to target teachers they have not yet reached.

“We really want to work a lot more intentionally in rural North Carolina,” said Elaine Franklin, director of the program. “You’ll see that we have these sort of desert places — like almost entire regions — where we have had very few or no fellows. When we look at that map, we see that eastern North Carolina is a place that we really want to concentrate.”

The day was split into sessions on different topics, led by teachers and former Kenan fellows, that participants could choose from. In one of those sessions, Wake County middle school science teacher Stephanie Bender shared how flipping her classroom has benefitted the quality of her teaching and, in turn, her students.

“It’s been a game changer for my teaching practice,” she said. 

Bender said, no matter the level of technological resources the school or individual students have, creating videos that provide instruction frees up time to help students work through problems face-to-face. If students have at-home technology, that could mean students watching lessons at home before practicing in-school. If not, Bender said using school-owned devices or even a single screen can be beneficial.  

Bender said a four-minute video often covers material that would have taken an hour to teach by speaking at the front of the classroom. Plus, a teacher does not have to repeat the same lesson throughout the day and students receive consistent and quality instruction, she said.

“It is amazing the difference that makes in your attitude,” she said.  

Kikoyta Spencer, a first-year high school English teacher in Pitt County, said he tried flipping his classroom during his teaching internship, but the session provided new ideas for implementation. Spencer said, even though his school focuses on professional development, the opportunity to be around so many other teachers — to share strategies and learn from one another — is rare. 

“That’s the missing piece all the way around from education,” Spencer said. “Of course you have the virtual world where you can connect, but it’s nothing like the authenticity of being able to sit down with your fellow colleagues…and talk to them about the emerging situations that we face.”

Spencer said he is interested in applying to a Kenan fellowship after attending the symposium, which is what Franklin said was the hope for the event.

“This partnership really depends on partnerships, and it’s about building relationships,” Franklin said. “Part of the reason that we’re doing this symposium today is really to make friends but also to provide professional development through our alumni network. This is kind of a new idea for us, but it’s a way for our initial step really to introduce ourselves more intentionally to a region.”

That also means creating relationships with organizations and businesses in rural communities. Franklin said many eastern North Carolina teachers apply but the program does not have internships with businesses to connect teachers with. 

“There’s sort of a myth that maybe we all have that there aren’t any STEM jobs in rural areas,” Franklin said. “And the more that we research that, the more we understand that that just isn’t true.”

She said they hope to link employers and students in rural areas through exposing teachers to skills industries need.

“That is just sad that we have young people that either aren’t finding jobs in those rural communities or they’re leaving because they think they never will,” she said. “We want to help bridge that gap, and I think teachers have to be a part of that.”

Different sessions covered the importance of teaching grit and hard work in gifted education, the value of using writing as a tool for students to learn in all subjects, and how to create environments that inspire students to create. Teachers and instructional coaches from across the K-12 system had sessions tailored to their grades.

Leigh Ann Hudson, a Martin County teacher who helped plan the event, said she wanted to make sure teachers had a variety of options.

“The planning committee wanted to make sure that we could appeal to a wide variety of audiences, and really gain the interest of teachers in the Kenan Fellows program, so that maybe they would want to pursue that opportunity in the future,” Hudson said.

John Scarfpin was on the same committee and is a Craven County high school engineering teacher and former Kenan fellow. During his internship, he helped a class build an airplane with a six-foot wingspan. Because of his experience, Scarfpin said he is always begging the program to do more in eastern North Carolina.

“Kenan Fellows gives you an opportunity to really make relevant ties to industry jobs, to careers that these students will actually go into,” he said. “Because of the way Kenan Fellows partners with industry, it gives teachers a very unique insight into the kinds of skills that they may be overlooking by just looking at academics alone.”

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.