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Perspective | Calling plus character build long-term leaders like this Sampson County assistant principal

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As I approach my third year as executive director of the North Carolina chapter of Teach For America, my team is also approaching a new chapter of our journey to recruit, equip, and develop teacher-leaders across the state. 

One of my initial goals, to unify the formerly separate Teach For America communities of Charlotte, the Piedmont-Triad, and Eastern North Carolina under one regional vision, is complete.

Many of our ambitious partnerships are underway, developing intentional leaders across our footprint. It would be easy to sit back, kick our feet up, and simply enjoy the fruit of our hard work. But our network of teachers, school and system leaders, and education professionals don’t think that way. They are relentless in their pursuit of more for their students. So must we be.

To highlight the ongoing efforts of our incredible Teach For America community in North Carolina, I’ll be inviting alumni of our program to join me in my regular reflections on leadership, change management, and strategic impact. Thankfully, I have a great partner to help me kick off this series: Amy Tart, 2014 corps member and now assistant principal in her placement district of Sampson County. 

Amy sat down with us to talk about her “full circle” moment, answering the call to be the role model and support she needed when she was young, and how character and integrity have built the foundation of her leadership journey. I hope you will enjoy the conversation as much as I did.

TFA: For those who may not know you, tell us more about yourself and what originally motivated you to join Teach For America.

Amy: My story starts as a student. I have a great family, but my father passed away when I was 13. He was the one that really pushed me to get my education. When I lost him, that changed our family dynamic and I didn’t have the same support system at home.

I turned into the kid that was always sent to the office. I clearly remember my high school principal saying, “You won’t amount to anything if you keep going down this road.” That stuck with me. I think back on how desperately I wanted someone to help, for someone to look past everything and ask, “What’s going on? How can we help?” 

I went on to Mars Hills University for computer sciences and had to take a required Intro to Education class as a filler. The professor, Dr. Deb, walked in on the first day and said, “Good morning, scholars.” 

Scholar. I had never been called a scholar before. 

Dr. Deb taught me that she believed that: we were all scholars. She believed in her students despite not knowing us. She expected greatness no matter who we were. I knew I wanted to make another student feel like that. After studying under Dr. Deb, I changed my major to elementary education. I was led by a calling to stand up for kids who may not feel they have someone behind them.

While researching career paths, I came upon Teach For America. The mission of closing opportunity gaps, making sure every child has a chance for success and the best education possible resonated. I knew that’s what I needed to do.

I joined the corps in 2014 and was placed in Clinton, in Sampson County, a completely different place from the western end of the state where I grew up going to school with one person of color. Clinton is very rural, lots of farmland, with a high population of migrant students. It opened up my eyes to a whole new perspective. I didn’t think I would fall in love with Sampson County, but I did. I fell absolutely in love with the students, the culture and diversity, and all the possibilities.

TFA: What has propelled you in your career?

Amy: I never thought I would leave the classroom. Fifth-grade reading is my passion. But I felt a new calling toward leadership. It was the same calling I felt for underrepresented students, to help them reach their full potential. Now, I want to help teachers do the same. 

It’s a strong admin team that builds people up and creates great learning environments as a result. Teachers have so much put on them. It seems like everyone has an opinion on public education, and that’s becoming toxic for teachers. They should have someone they can go to after a bad day. When they come in, they should be supported and loved. I want my teachers to look forward to showing up every day, and you can feel it when they do. Admin and leadership is that customer service for teachers. 

To me, character and integrity as a leader comes down to transparency. I’m human too. I’ll make mistakes, but I want to be called out on that. If there is something teachers think I could do better, I want to hear that perspective. I can have my name and title outside of the door, but it’s their perceptions that add up to who I am, and what I stand for. 

TFA: Who are other leaders in this work that you look up to?

Amy: I really look up to Dr. Marlow Artis, Craven Early College Principal. He was on the panel that selected me as Teacher of the Year. He’s a voice for teachers. 

In 2018, he had the idea for “Tar Heel Teachers,” a video podcast where educators come together and just talk. Open dialogues. I got involved with that, and I love it. We have Teachers of the Year, candidates for superintendent, and others discussing what’s happening in education. One of the highlights was speaking with the original students involved in the Leandro case, twenty years later. 

I really look up to Dr. Artis because he pushes to find the leader in everyone and highlight that for them. He did that for me. I truly look up to him because he is a visionary in culture building and being transparent. 

I also look up to Greg Dirks, a Clinton City Schools Principal of the Year. He’s my mentor. He is so passionate about his community. He has no problem going to areas of town people normally wouldn’t want to. Kids know him by name in their neighborhoods. He is absolutely boots on the ground. He’s all-in when it comes making sure that a school is a hub. Parents and students feel like they are welcome and that’s how it should be.

TFA: What impact do you hope to make for the students of Union Elementary School?

Amy: My hope is for them to have hope. I’m thinking about little Amy in the office all the time. I hope they feel like they’re somebody. 

My first open house as an AP, I was over the bus station. As I’m speaking with parents, I look up and a young man is standing there, looking at me. I asked him if he needed help with a bus. “Ms. Tart, I’m so proud of you,” he said. He was one of my former students who I hadn’t seen in seven years. I hardly recognized him. I ran and hugged him. I even cried. He said, “You always told us you were proud of us, and I wanted to tell you that I’m proud of you.” 

I promised my former students I would be at their graduations, and I continue to honor that. I hope they always see their future self. Every teacher, every educator, we do this to see our students succeed. But you can’t wait for it to happen, you have to believe it right then and there. 

Monique Perry-Graves

Dr. Monique Perry-Graves is an award-winning social impact and education executive with over 20 years of experience leading in the business, non-profit, and higher education sectors. She has a relentless passion for education born from her lived experience becoming a teen mom and the unwavering belief in her potential from her family and her broader education and professional village.

In July 2021, Graves began serving as Teach For America’s first tri-region statewide executive director leading TFA’s entire North Carolina footprint. As TFA’s chief executive for the state, she leads multiple teams spanning Charlotte, the Piedmont-Triad, Triangle, and Eastern North Carolina, in support of TFA’s mission.

She is also long-time community leader serving on numerous boards and advisory committees, including the Charlotte Executive Leadership Council (CELC) Education Working Group, Governor Roy Cooper’s task force for the recruitment and retention of diverse educators (DRIVE),  WGU North Carolina, EducationNC and North Carolina Central University’s College of Arts, Sciences and Humanities. She is an Aspen Institute Presidential Fellow, Inroads alum, a proud mom of an adult son, and pandemic bride.