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Perspective | Taking time to meet the moment

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The following is part of my monthly column, One Day and One Goal: Expanding opportunity in N.C. I invite you to follow along as I share stories from classrooms and explore critical issues facing education in our state. Go here for past columns.

At the kickoff of the Teach For America North Carolina (TFA NC) One Day Breakfast Event Series, President of the Rocky Mount Chamber of Commerce David Farris put it well: “We’re here because we want a bright future in THIS moment.” 

What does it mean to meet the moment? When we set out to put together the biggest version of our annual event to date, our vision was to offer an answer to this question. Every day, the educators, administrators, and thought leaders that make up TFA NC’s network of changemakers work to meet the moment of educational inequity head-on. They show up, dig in, work hard, and have fun. Their unwavering support ensures that their students have a safe, relevant, and rigorous experience in the classroom. 

We visited four of TFA NC’s pillar communities — Rocky Mount, Greensboro, Charlotte, and Raleigh — and gathered current corps members, alumni educators, school and system leaders, and an array of diverse community leaders in order to celebrate the work of those on the “front lines” of educational equity and join hands as we chart a path forward. As Charrise Hart, CEO of Ready for School, Ready for Life put it during our Greensboro event, “When we support teachers, they invest in their students, and that’s what we need in order to make this dynamic shift in our educational system.”

Each event included networking opportunities, panel discussions, and other insightful reflections from key stakeholders in the education ecosystem. Notable speakers that readers of my past columns might recognize were Alyssa Sharpe, CEO of Digi-Bridge; Stephen Bell, American Indian Education Coordinator in Guilford County Schools; and Mebane Rash, Founder and CEO of EducationNC, who poignantly shared, “What I know to be true is that ‘One Day’ doesn’t happen without TFA and its teachers, for all of their students and all students across North Carolina.”

Each event was also a true celebration, including what we called “Joy Moments,” or snapshots of student joy and learning from TFA-led classrooms and initiatives. From student band serenades to STEM competitors, attendees got a chance to hear from students directly about their growth, their personal hopes and ambitions, and their favorite things about their TFA teachers, including: 

  • “She understands me.”
  • I’m an immigrant. She can speak Spanish and I do too, so she helps me sometimes with the language.” 
  • “I love how she makes me feel safe.”

I’ll admit, it makes me emotional to think about, even now. When elementary students can articulate this experience in their classroom, it is a clear proof point that “Meeting the Moment” is not only essential to student learning but also to their holistic development. As Movement Freedom Middle School Principal Kenneth Gorham put it during our Charlotte event, “Impact goes beyond just one portion or one part of the child. We’re pointing to the whole child, in totality. That includes character development [and] rigorous academics.” 

Addressing learning gaps through relationship-based learning

Another proof point of TFA’s partnership with communities toward educational equity is the launch of the Ignite Fellowship during the 2022-2023 school year. Designed as a strategic tutoring program, Ignite virtually connects educators and student fellows in small group and one-to-one environments in order to increase proficiency in critical subject areas. 

Currently, TFA has Ignite program partners in a number of eastern North Carolina schools. During the Rocky Mount One Day Breakfast, Southwest Edgecombe High School Principal Lauren Lampron described it as an opportunity to “oversee great work for kids, ameliorate learning gaps that we know have already existed, and make kids really love math!”

At Henderson Collegiate, student fellows gather for after-school tutoring, facilitated by middle school math teacher and Ignite trainer Michael Scoffield. Though Michael is not a corps member, he found alignment with our goal and came to deeply believe in the Ignite Fellowship because of the potential it offers for student growth. “I think Ignite is great because it really does meet kids where they are and allows them to close gaps quickly so they can be in a more rigorous setting during the school day,” Michael said. 

We see this as a way to meet educators where they are as well. A thread that ran through many of our teacher’s reflections during this event series was that teaching is a rigorous exercise in and of itself. As first-year Charlotte teacher Quwamee Simmons Bell put it, “In this season of education, teaching means showing up for your students, always giving a thousand percent, and going above and beyond inside and outside of the classroom.” That’s no easy feat!

“Teaching is a really hard job,” echoed alumna Maggie McDaniel. “It requires me to show up every day, to be there for my students, and be so much more than a teacher.” In order to acknowledge the hard work of our teachers and free them to focus on their students in the classroom, implementing programs like the Ignite Fellowship is the least we can do to support learning and growth. 

Though TFA has been a presence in eastern North Carolina education since 1990, we see the Ignite Fellowship as yet another opportunity to grow and develop alongside our partner schools and communities. We are sure to continue seeing impact through this initiative within our current program sites and expand to more in the future. 

A new chapter in the same story

Developing systems of change leadership in our teachers and their students is just one piece of our ambitious vision when it comes to “Meeting the Moment” and accelerating towards One Day for all of North Carolina’s students. TFA NC will continue to recruit top talent to our communities and retain the kind of education leaders who will join the ranks of alumni school and system leaders, non-profit innovators and wraparound service providers, and influencers and champions in our unique network. We will also continue to share tools, opportunities, and insights across our communities, to create and advance system-level change. 

My hope is that our One Day Breakfast Event Series illuminated just how far we’ve come under this vision and served as a catalyst for furthering the mission we share. 

I want to conclude by sharing my deep gratitude for all of the TFA staff members, advisory board members, and partners who rallied around our One Day Breakfast Event Series, making it a truly memorable experience and demonstrating just how vital education is to the future of our communities. Belk Foundation Board of Trustees member Katie B. Morris said it best: “Quality education is a ladder of opportunity. If we are going to have a strong economy, strong communities, we have got to have a strong, equitable education system.”

I am personally committing to “Meeting the Moment” as an anchoring theme in my leadership as we continue our work in North Carolina, including all of the pivots, innovations, and collaborations this moment necessitates. I’d love to hear what “Meeting the Moment” means for you and those you impact.

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.