A series profiling individuals working to creatively raise up North Carolina’s education system.
Stuart Egan has been teaching for 18 years. He is shooting for 10,000 hours. He thinks then he will have mastered his craft.
When I meet him, he says, “My first name is Stuart, but people who know me call me Stu. People who don’t know me just fear me.”
He is kidding. I think.
“I belong in the class,” he also says. And he is not kidding. The students adore him.
Mr. Egan teaches four sections of AP English Language — a rhetoric and argumentation class — and two sections of Shakespeare at West Forsyth High School in Winston-Salem. Egan says, “In a junior class of more than 500 at West Forsyth, we have nearly 200 students taking the AP English class. That is not usual in a big public high school.”
Today is a long day. He will be at school from 8-4:30, and then he will return for the faculty talent show from 6-10. The talent show is a fundraiser for the PTSA, and Egan will be featured in three skits: a reading of Little Red Riding Hood in Shakespearean style, a “Who’s on First” routine with the chair of the science department, and a Back to the Future class reunion as one of the old teachers who dances to tunes from the 80s until now.
It’s not just today that is long for Egan. Most days are long. He notes that his high school has THE BEST student section for football games with 600-700 students regularly showing up. On Friday nights, he is right there with them.
When he is not a school, he is with his family, including two children who attend public schools in the district. His son, Malcolm, is eight and has Down syndrome. Malcolm attends Sherwood Forest Elementary School. Egan’s school hosts the Buddy Walk put on by the Piedmont Down Syndrome Support Network, an event promoting awareness, acceptance, and inclusion of people with Down syndrome. In the five years the school has hosted the event, Egan says more than $300,000 has been raised and between 150-200 students volunteer for the event.
When he is not at school or with his family, he somehow finds time to write op-ed after op-ed trying to connect politics and policy with what he sees happening in the classroom. When he gets really mad, he writes open letters to the policymakers.
So it is no secret that Egan is not happy with the current leadership on Jones Street.
The day I visit him he arrives at school — after jamming out to Jimmy Page on the way in — in time to lead his PLT (professional learning team) at 8:15.
On our way to the meeting, a student approaches us. The student had shared a writing prompt with subsequent classes, and Egan was not happy. “You took away my teachable moment,” says Egan.
Egan’s prompt? “Contemporary life is marked by controversy. Choose a controversial local, national, or global issue with which you are familiar. Then, using appropriate evidence, write an essay that carefully considers the opposing positions on this controversy and proposes a solution or compromise.”
As the student walks away, Egan yells to the student, “You still love me!”
Egan’s English Department includes six male teachers. Unusual, he says. At the PLT meeting, the teachers discuss renewing their national boards over the holidays. Egan says the state has stopped paying the fee. Renewal is cheaper, but it still costs $1,250.
Then they move to the issue of the day: annotation. Students are allowed to use books with their annotations on tests. This practice encourages the students to read more closely. One teacher notes, “it’s odd to me that annotating is new to a lot of people. Even in church, people annotate the Bible.”
Egan says the number of students at the school on free and reduced price lunch has doubled in the last six years. Many of his students can’t afford to buy their own copies of the books needed for his class. He teaches them to use post-it notes to annotate on books they don’t own. He tells them, “it’s your thinking on the page.”
“We need to be radical about how we redefine reading.”
The time together with peers in the PLT is critical. Mr. Sabolcik says, “Good teachers are good learners.”
Egan runs to the office to make an announcement about the talent show. Over the school’s public address system, we hear him say, “If my students, don’t show up, I’ll change your transcript.” The students crack up.
While Egan is out of the classroom, I ask the students about him. “He’s a legend,” says Max, and all of them agree. Ashlynn notes how supportive he is of students, always coming to after school events, like when she was in The Tempest. “There is no other teacher like him,” says Jaise. “He puts a lot of character into his teacher,” says Claire. “He knows EVERYTHING,” says Josh. They don’t hold back.
At 8:55, “the magic happens,” as Egan says, and class begins. There are 23 students just waiting for the talent show that happens everyday in Room 2018.
Egan starts tossing copies of Henry the V to the students. Literally.
“Phones up. If y’all don’t make me look good, I am going to fail you.” They laugh.
Egan bellows, “Hal is a noble king. The people are united under him.”
Sitting in class with Egan and his students, watching him teach, I can’t help but wonder if all of Egan’s op-eds and open letters are just an attempt to raise the bar for state leadership to the literary level he holds up for his students. And if he is intentionally modeling the rhetoric and argumentation skills he teaches for his students.
Next thing I know he is juggling to engage the kids in the text.
The bell rings. As the students exit the classroom, Egan asks, “anybody need a hug?”
Egan is not a public school kid. He grew up in Georgia and attended a private college preparatory high school before going to Wake Forest University. He was supposed to go to medical school, but his English professor said, “You would make a very good teacher. You have good presence.” His mom was crushed.
Allen Mandelbaum, winner of the National Book Award for his translation of the Aeneid, was his professor and “a true legend,” according to Egan. Taking classes at Wake Forest from Mandelbaum and Maya Angelou inspires Egan to this day.
Egan wants his students, and his children, to have as good an education as he had.
“Folks,” he says to his students, “I can listen to myself talk for hours.”
North Carolina, get ready. My guess is Mr. Egan is going to have a lot to say this year about our elections. I thought it was time for us to get to know him.
Egan looks at me as I leave, and says, “That whole Def Leppard thing. It’s better to burn out than fade away.”
Mr. Egan’s op-eds are featured regularly in his hometown newspaper, The Winston-Salem Journal:
- A bad deal on tenure.
- Grading the graders.
- The legislature’s farce on education support.
- Teachers are not the root of the problem.
- Defending public education.
- Judging schools by an unfair standard.
EdNC also features Egan’s voice.
His writings are also featured on Diane Ravitch’s blog, NC Policy Watch, and the Camel City Dispatch.