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What I learned in 2015

The Holidays are a time for family, friends, punch, finger foods, catching up on Netflix, reading articles that you meant to read when you saved them back in July, and sleeping without an alarm.

For some, they also represent a time to reflect on the year that was and look ahead at the year to come.

This weekend I found myself at a farm in Ashe County that has offered me a retreat throughout a tumultuous 2015. As I walked the farm on an unseasonably warm morning the day after Christmas, I reflected on my tenure with EdNC, which began on July 1 kicking off perhaps the most rewarding six months of my life.

I tried to recall all that I’ve learned since July. The following is an incomplete list:

+ Our schools must grapple with far more than what happens within the school itself. Hunger, poverty, and other forms of trauma have a profound impact on student achievement. I feel fortunate to have met David Thompson of Buncombe County Schools, as well as other leaders, who are working to build a compassionate schools model that will take into account the full range of issues facing our students.

+ From David Thompson, I learned that we must reframe the question from “Why did you do that?” to “What is going on with you?” when a student acts out. Of all of the lessons I’ve gained from the compassionate schools model that might be the one that has stuck with me the most.

+ Mikki Sager showed us that even in the most humble of communities impressive leaders and nonprofits are working diligently to inspire hope. One of our visits reminded me that age is no excuse as Artis Crews reminded us that, “Honey, I’m 70-years old. I can’t slow down. That is coming soon enough.”

+ The Southern Foodways Symposium taught me that Southern food could be served with a side of social initiative. As John T. Edge said at the memorial service for John Egerton, “By way of his belief in the possibilities of our region, by way of his willingness to speak truth to power — while pouring power a drink and handing power a ham biscuit and promising power a spoonful of homemade lemon curd, too — John Egerton enabled generations of Southerners to do better by our region and by our common man.”

+ I was reminded by 120 remarkable high schoolers that we must tell our stories to create change and to find common ground. They taught me that to survive adversity and to support one another, we must first see one another across all the different lines that we have been taught to see as dividing lines. And if we do that then we might really see one another through our strengths and our weaknesses, our pain and our joy.

+ Cynthia Ervin of the Department of Public Instruction showed me throughout the year what a can-do spirit might do. She inspired by showing us all that we can each make a difference on behalf of hungry children in ways large and small. Cynthia does so by traveling throughout the state, picking up the phone day and night, and by always being present for those who strive to feed hungry students over the summer months.

+ Ta-Nehisi Coates reminded me to, “Find what’s in your heart, the work, the actual craft, and angle that towards justice.”

+ I learned from my late wife, Jamie, and my friends and family, that while my story is wrapped up in my past, a future exists as well. I learned that it is possible to move forward without moving on. I learned that it is possible to live, and even love. I learned that ultimately life can be wonderful — even in the broken, fractured reality of our day to day — if we work at it.

I was even shown that we could go home again and find a turnaround story that we could all learn from.

I have been inspired and motivated by the students, teachers, and administrators that I have met. I have learned that countless people are working daily to make life better for us all. I have been reminded, as the old saying goes, that nothing is wrong with our communities that can’t be fixed by what is right with our people.

It has been a remarkable six months, and I can’t wait for 2016 — because perhaps the biggest lesson is how much I have left to learn about this state we all call home.

Nation Hahn

Nation Hahn is the chief of growth for EducationNC.