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The positive force of ‘bridge builders’ across North Carolina

Editor’s Note: Ahead of the event last night, Burroughs Wellcome Fund 2018 NC Teacher of the Year Freebird McKinney provided these remarks.

This moment. This is precisely why we are all FIT Leaders. We are gathered here today, united, in a cause that is beyond our individual efforts. It calls us, as it did when we chose this profession and its path, to serve our students and to remember ultimately why education is our purpose. It will require all of us to transcend the walls of this room and to work collaboratively to achieve the ultimate goal of reclaiming North Carolina as “First in Teaching.”

I want to first thank the legislators who are here in attendance this afternoon, thank you for believing that public education is the foundation for a democratic society, one that pledges for all students a just and equitable education, and a professional respect for the teachers who have dedicated their lives to this calling. Thank you to BEST NC for believing in our group, for inviting us to the Innovation Lab in September when we first actualized the vision to create a positive force of “bridge builders” across this state. A special thank you to all the educational advocacy groups for helping to provide a “place at the table” in honored representation of our profession and the thousands of teachers who serve our state. Many members of the BEST NC board are here this afternoon, and we are grateful for your dedication, contributions, and leadership in our collective mission. And as fellow FIT leader, Matt Schialdone, always reminds me when he meets a fellow educator, “thank you” teachers, all of you, in your recognition for being present, taking part, and representing FIT, your communities, your schools, your colleagues, and your students. Today, reflects “our place at the table” with a goal of representing educator voices across North Carolina.

When we collectively began this journey in the summer of 2018, the education profession was facing a series of issues that was preventing us from equitably serving our students. We realized, as we had for some time, that we were not seeing a state that was “First in Teaching.” And accompanying this realization was a narrative that our profession was no longer desirable, or viable, or a promising career opportunity for our students and even our own children. This was not acceptable to us. Nor was it what many of us believed to be our understanding and daily experience with teaching. But this perspective did not make the outside opinions any less real. Many failed to see the determination of our educators and the vital necessity in serving the needs of our students and empowering them to actualize as academically engaged and informed citizens.

The collection of educators assembled this past summer simply saw barriers. And as my fellow FIT Leader, Julie Pittman, shared with a group of teacher leaders looking out across the inlet, atop the Coast Guard tower at NCCAT Ocracoke Island, “a barrier is merely a temporary position until you change your perspective to see the horizon.” This statement reflects why, we believe, the educators sitting in this room choose to be FIT Leaders. We want our focus to remain on creating solutions that change the REAL barriers to the professionalism of teaching and to serving our students.

FIT Leaders are intrinsically tied together, motivated as change makers, to bring positive and possible solutions backed by experience, research, and the unique ability to look across the diverse perspectives that we bring to the table. We respectfully and purposefully ask of our professional network their opinions on essential topics affecting our service and we use collaborative feedback to create innovative solutions to these same barriers that are preventing the public from visualizing the “horizon” of North Carolina’s future.

When the idea of creating a group like FIT Leaders first began, at September’s Innovation Lab, it was merely a vision, a hope that a collection of passionate individuals could unite the idea of public education. Here we met and engaged with countless representatives of the world of public education in NC. It was here we met LaTanya Pattillo, the leader of the Governor’s Teacher Advisory Council; Mark Sorrells, formerly of Golden LEAF; John Denning of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; and Cecilia Holden, Legislative Specialist to the State Board of Education. We met colleagues from around the state, including the group Profound Gentlemen, whose goal it is to increase males of color in the teaching profession, and DRIVE, whose goal is to help build transformational school cultures through relationship building and intrinsic motivation. We learned from educators through best practice and we became aware that “we had a place at the table.” We also learned that public education is worth fighting for, that it is necessary to the democratic process, that it is connected to the future of economic and workforce development, and that it is vital in providing the students of North Carolina equitable and just access to their actualization as fully-realized educated human beings. The Innovation Lab lit fires in each of us and birthed the inception and idea of what FIT could be.

But this idea has become a reality, and we have accomplished this through a dedicated model of “bridge building.” Representing a myriad of professional organizations, FIT Leaders represent groups including Kenan Fellows, Hope Street Group, NCAE, the Governor’s Teacher Advisory Council, present and past experience serving on a multitude of advisory boards including the State Board of Education, NC Public School Forum, EducationNC, NCCAT, PEPSC, and participation with global education organizations like GGNC, World View, and Participate. We believe that educators are the conduits for our students and schools to our communities, and we have designed intentional connections between our local universities and community colleges, businesses, Chambers of Commerce, community organizations, and educational foundations.

Today, we are here to continue “building bridges” with our state legislators to promote student success and to elevate the teaching profession at the local, state, and national level. FIT Leaders see this partnership and its potential, its possibility, its necessity, and its immediacy as one that could realign our state in its affirmation to public education. But we have work to do. And in this room is gathered a group of legislative representatives, of educational advocates, and of dedicated educators, the FIT Leaders, who are committed to changing the narrative, to positive collaboration, and to fighting for what our students need, what our teachers deserve, and what our state requires to return to being first in teaching.

When I was first named the NC Teacher of the Year, I did not realize the privilege and the responsibility that accompanied such an honor. I was not prepared nor ready for the path that lay before me. And as I have traveled around this state visiting schools, meeting new colleagues, learning of the innovative and engaging ways our schools are fighting to meet the needs of our students, I quickly realized that I am not actually the teacher of the year. I was given this name, but this title represents the collective force that each and every one of us is bestowed with every single day by our students. A few weeks ago when visiting an elementary school in Asheboro City, the teacher introduced me to her class as the NC Teacher of the Year and a little boy looked at me disdainfully and responded that HIS teacher was the Teacher of the Year. And he was right. All students see this in their teachers — every community feels this when they look at their educators as the fulcrum for their neighborhoods and schools.

Today, I introduce to you many of these educators who humbly stand in representation of our colleagues and our students from across the state.

We are one group of representatives here to partner. We also encourage you to continue building bridges with your local educator community, which we do everyday as well. We are happy to facilitate any way we can and hope you can answer the call.

We are the individuals willing to speak with you on how to better serve the “whole child” through equity and cultural responsiveness. We are here to remind you of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and our daily mission to feed their bodies, so we can feed their hearts, minds, and souls. We are here to offer support and advice about Advanced Roles. We are here to share our experiences about the vital importance of effective principals and school leadership. We are more than willing to discuss solutions about compensation models in a positive “bridge building” conversation that reflects our understanding of policy and practice. We humbly realize that while we cannot possibly represent each and every educator, we are ready to build the next generation of teacher leaders through recruitment and retention initiatives. We are here for you in your decision-making, we are here for our colleagues in representation, and we are here for our students, devoted to their present state of happiness and their future success. We look forward to sharing our “road map” with you as we look to the horizon, to once again reclaim North Carolina as “First in Teaching.”

Thank you once again to everyone in the room, “everyone at the table,” and everyone who entrusts us with this honor. We are all FIT leaders.

Freebird McKinney

Freebird McKinney is Burroughs Wellcome Fund 2018 N.C. Teacher of the Year. He is a social studies and philosophy teacher at Walter M. Williams High School.