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Teachers who ‘found our roots in our profession’

Let me introduce you to two extraordinary public school teachers, who traveled unconventional routes to the classroom, and now have collaborated on an idea to produce teacher-leaders in schools and communities.

On a recent morning in Greensboro, Freebird McKinney, the 2018 North Carolina Teacher of the Year, and Julie Pittman, the 2018 Western Region Teacher of the Year, agreed to meet with me to explain their EdLeadNC proposal. But the interview had hardly begun before they took the conversation in an unexpected, and deeply personal, direction.

“The first thing to know about Julie and me is that we’re both lateral-entry teachers,” said McKinney (yes, his first name is Freebird). “Our path to teaching found us,” Pittman added. Both emerged from fractured families, and both zig-zagged through short-term jobs during and after their studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Pittman teaches English and composition at R-S Central High School in Rutherfordton. When her homeroom became a refuge for Spanish-speaking students on days without an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher, she developed a special course for 16 Hispanic teenagers.

Her mother and birth father had a tempestuous marriage (“I witnessed violence as a young child.”), she recalled. Her mother’s remarriage brought stability and affluence to the family.

After earning a master’s degree in communication studies, Pittman went to New York City where she worked in the children’s publishing division of Random House and for a nonprofit theater. Still, she said, “I was called back to the classroom.” Pittman, who is now the mother of 10-year-old twin daughters, returned to North Carolina and obtained her teaching certification through the NCTeach program at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

McKinney has taught European and world history at Williams High School in Burlington since 2015. As the state teacher of the year, he received a sabbatical and funding to travel around the state participating in education-related activities, including serving as an adviser to the State Board of Education.

In public school, said McKinney, “I was a free-lunch kid.” During his junior year at UNC-Chapel Hill, “my second father left us.” He majored in anthropology and philosophy because “I always wanted to be a professor.”

Needing income while in college, he got a line-cook job in the kitchen of The Carolina Inn. He also developed a proficiency in ice-carving. He went on to work as a chef in restaurants in Cambridge, MA and Wilmington, NC.

To prepare for teaching, McKinney, who is the father of a 10-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son, earned a master’s degree in history because he needed a “teachable degree’’ recognized in North Carolina. He subsequently also earned a master’s degree in education — both at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

When former Alamance-Burlington Schools Superintendent Bill Harrison and Tracey Grayzer of Impact Alamance developed a teacher-leadership project, McKinney participated in and helped to foster the nine-month immersion for teachers into governmental institutions, civic life, workforce structures, and global connections of their community. Pittman, in turn, drew on McKinney’s assistance as she worked with Superintendent Janet Mason to develop the project in Rutherford County Schools.

Now, McKinney and Pittman want to take their EdLeadNC initiative across the state; they are looking for funding and an institutional home for the project. In doing so, they are venturing into a semi-vacuum in professional development.

Over the past decade of education policy shifts, the legislature eliminated the Teacher Academies and cut in half the budget of the N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching, though it’s recovering. Most professional development now depends on the initiatives and capacities of local school districts.

What McKinney and Pittman have in mind is what they call “an educator-culture transformation.” Their plan does not focus on curriculum content but rather on purposeful engagement in the community beyond the classroom.

“So often teachers forget how important they are in the building of community,” said McKinney. “We need to bring power and purpose into our content,’’ said Pittman.

Speaking of himself and Pittman, McKinney said, “For two kids who had trouble finding roots, we found roots in our profession.” And for them, he added, “Teacher is what you are, not just a job.”

Addendum: In the interest of full disclosure, Pittman and McKinney served as masters of ceremony at an EdNC convening earlier this week. EdNC invites the state Teacher of the Year to serve on its board of directors. For eight years, I served on the NCCAT Board of Trustees.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.