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Perspective | TOY Leah Carper issues call to action to state leaders: ‘You work for our students’

Editor’s Note: Leah Carper served on the N.C. State Board of Education in her capacity as the 2022 Burroughs Wellcome Fund North Carolina Teacher of the Year. This is an edited version of her remarks at the end of her tenure on the board.

Eric Davis, chair of the N.C. State Board of Education, said recently to someone who was going to address the board, “tell us what we need to hear, not what you think we want to hear.”

Here is what I need you to hear.

To the State Board, thank you. I’ve met teachers of the year from around the country who would love to have the opportunity to serve on their state board of education. You turn being a teacher of the year or a principal of the year into a position, not just a title. You give us a voice, but not only that, you give us a microphone, and you turn it on, and you give us time, and you acknowledge us when we raise our hand.

To the Department of Public Instruction, two years ago, I had no idea what you did in that pink building. No clue. No idea. But now I really do. DPI is full of passionate, knowledgeable professionals who work tirelessly on behalf of our students and our educators. I hope teachers can hear me when I say they want to partner with you, they want to work with you, they want to love you, and they will provide support and resources so all of our students and educators can be successful.

To North Carolina, you need to hear that there’s over 90,000 teachers in our state who are looking to this board and to this department and to our legislature to be a partner in the great work that is shaping the future of our state. That future is predicated upon this educational system. They’re looking to you, and we know that you’re here to assist the teachers. You also need to hear that all the pressure of that lays on the teacher’s shoulders because they’re the ones doing that great work. They are trained professionals who are experts in their fields, and they deserve to be respected, supported, and compensated for the very hard work we do. 

Statistically, I’m not supposed to be here. I’m really not. Years ago, I was a student in a North Carolina public school classroom. I showed up to school with an empty belly most days, filthy clothes, no pencils. Never a pencil. I showed up to school carrying grief sometimes and sadness and fear. When I showed up to school, there were teachers and administrators and even classified staff who showed me love, and they showed me kindness, and they showed me grace, and they saw my potential. They saw more than a filthy little girl who has a broken home. They saw a girl who could do great things, and they helped me do great things. 

Statistically, I wasn’t supposed to be here, but I’m really glad that I was, you know? I’m grateful, and a lot of that has to do with our public school educators. These are experts. They did their job. And is it any wonder why I wanted to be one of them? 

You need to hear that my story is not unique.

It’s a story of many of our students sitting in North Carolina public classrooms full of potential, full of promise, coming from various different backgrounds, who need excellent educators to reach out to them and help them actualize their potential. You never know what that potential could possibly create. They could be sitting in this room advising you one day too.

Finally, you need to hear this. 

We are entering a time of great uncertainty and great change, but there are a few certainties. The biggest thing that’s for certain is that in August of 2024, 1.3 million public school students will grace us and grace the desks of classrooms all across North Carolina.

They need us to show up. They need us to take action for them, because we know at the end of the day, it’s our actions that matter, not our words. It’s what we do for them that’s going to change their lives. 

Those 1.3 million students — students like me — are depending on us, the Department of Public Instruction, and our legislature to do things that will help them. You need to remember, and you need to hear, that that’s who you work for. You work for our students, every single one of our students, no matter where they come from, no matter what they believe, no matter what they look like. That’s who we work for, and if we hear that important thing that you need to hear, that you work for students, if we hear that over and over, and if we remember that in everything that we do, that we’re doing this work for those students, we’re going to do some pretty good work. 

Leah Carper

Leah Carper is the 2022 North Carolina Teacher of the Year and the director of stakeholder engagement for Guilford County Schools.