Charlottean of the Year 2014: James Ford

At a time when everybody—politicians, teachers, parents, students—points to what’s wrong with the education system, our Charlottean of the Year is determined to show us what’s right


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James Ford is the first Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teacher to win the North Carolina Teacher of the Year award in more than 40 years.

LOGAN CYRUS

James Ford doesn’t know where he’s going. He climbs down the front steps of the student union on the UNC Charlotte campus, stops at the bottom, and looks right and left. He’s here for an appointment to tour the new Charlotte Engineering Early College with members of the state board of education as part of his tenure as the 2014 North Carolina Teacher of the Year. But he can’t find the building. 

James Ford may be traveling the state as the North Carolina Teacher of the Year this year, but he’s most at home in a classroom.

He looks down at his directions. They’re no help. They’re made for people in cars, and he’s on foot. Ford looks up and tries to find a street sign. There aren’t any. In front of him, the campus unfolds. Students flow around him like a river over a rock. The high sun cooks the concrete walkways. Ford pulls a handkerchief from his pocket and dabs the sweat beading on his forehead. 

He asks for help. One student, then another, then another, apologizes for not having heard of the building. Ford’s modest quest is beginning to feel like one of those inspirational posters in a classroom: If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there. Ford concludes he is facing the wrong way. Instead of going out the front door, he needs to go out the back.

He turns around and walks through the crowd of students in the union. “Mr. Ford!” someone says. It’s one of his former students at Garinger High School, where he taught from 2010 to 2014. “Come back to the G,” he tells her. “Show them what success looks like.”

Success, yes. Let’s talk about that for a bit. Ford moved to Charlotte from Illinois in 2010 without a job. Four school years later, he was named the North Carolina Teacher of the Year—the first from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in more than 40 years. In that role, he is spending the 2014-15 school year traveling the state as an ambassador for education. Just a few months in, he’s already become a star in the education world—a high-profile advocate for the state’s public schools, with a particular focus on at-risk students. 

Ford, 34, can seemingly do everything. He can wax philosophic about profound lessons to be gleaned from world history—and he can rap those same lessons. That combination enables him to connect with high-ranking political officials and the kid sleeping in his class. His friends and contemporaries see him as a bridge between us and them, regardless of who we and they are. 

“He could be one of the most influential teachers of the year the state has ever had,” says Eric Guckian, a senior education adviser to Governor Pat McCrory. 

For what Ford has done for the students of Charlotte already and for what he will do on their behalf this year and beyond, he is Charlotte magazine’s first Charlottean of the Year.

***

THE TEACHER'S NAME was Ernest Stokes, and every school has someone like him. He was part curmudgeon, part legend. Everybody in Ford’s high school in Rockford, Illinois, wanted to take Stokes’s class. Entering his junior year, though, Ford cared more about making good jokes than making good grades. On the first day, the smart aleck in Ford came out, as it often did at that time in his life. Instead of listening, he tried to make his buddies laugh. He can’t remember what he said, but he’ll never forget what happened next.

Stokes stopped the class.

He ordered Ford into the hallway.

He lit into him. 

Ford stood there, embarrassed. “He looked at me,” Ford remembers, “and he’s like, ‘You’ve got a lot of potential. I can teach you so much, if you’d just listen.’”

That brief exchange awakened Ford. In that moment, he says, he realized that without effort, his intellect was worthless. 

***

YES, IT'S STRANGE but true: The state’s teacher of the year is not teaching this year. In addition to touring the state as an ambassador, Ford also is serving a two-year term as an adviser to the state board of education. He’s not sure yet if he’ll return to teaching or become a principal or earn a doctorate or get into policy or politics when his term is up. The world is open before him. Or it will be, anyway. He’s also a candidate for national teacher of the year, which would bring its own one-year term of touring the country.

At the state board of education’s monthly meeting in October, Ford sits at a table with a nameplate, computer, and apple in front of him. He listens as board members yak-yak-yak about the fact that the state demands that schools teach founding principles but doesn’t seem to know whether kids actually learn those principles. 

This comes in the context of a broader debate about whether students should be taught American history in a way that makes them more patriotic. To teach students this way—with an end analysis already in mind—runs counter to what Ford holds dear. He wants to teach kids how, not what, to think. As board members look on, he makes an impassioned case for the very existence of teachers. 

“The task of any good educator is to push your students as far as you possibly can, to get them to think critically, to provoke thought, with the idea that helps to improve them, that you stretch your kids,” he tells the audience, “and that in doing so, not only does it benefit them, it benefits us as a society, because to be able to evaluate is the highest form of rigor.”

Then he deadpans.

“Some of you may not be aware, I’m a minority, African American …”   The audience pauses, looks at him, and then breaks into laughter. 

As the meeting wraps up, Ford works the room, talking with political operatives and educators and policy makers. Many of them are older white men, and if they have any hair left, it’s either white or graying. Ford sports dreadlocks that haven’t been cut since November 15, 1997.

He connects with everybody. In Ford’s short time in the Charlotte and statewide education community, he has amassed an array of admirers, from parents to principals to politicos. They see a bright future for him, whether it’s in the classroom, the principal’s office, or elsewhere. 

He’s charming, but direct. Charlie Smith, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg chapter of the North Carolina Association of Educators, describes Ford’s statements at the school board meeting this way: “He didn’t tell them what they wanted to hear. He told them what they needed to hear.”

There’s plenty they need to hear. A study this fall by WalletHub, a financial review website, ranked North Carolina dead last on its list of “best and worst states for teachers.” We don’t pay our teachers enough, and our students don’t score high enough on tests, and we’re not teaching them the right things. 

This year, doom dominated any discussion about education. Teachers complain about how much money they make or don’t make, about raises they got or didn’t get, and what a terrible state the system’s in. Politicians make it worse. Listening to candidates campaign during the election season this year, you’d be left to wonder whether there’s an employable public school graduate anywhere in North Carolina, so full of failure are our schools. Whether these perceptions are accurate doesn’t matter. We have created our own reality, which is that the education climate is so bad in North Carolina that Houston—Houston!—is trying to poach our teachers. 

Into this depressing dog’s breakfast steps Ford, full of hope and hugs, high ideals and hip-hop rhymes. When so much of the talk about education in North Carolina is about what’s broken, Ford points to what’s possible. “The narrative that education in North Carolina is going to hell in a handbasket is not helpful to our students,” says Guckian, McCrory’s adviser. “James’s focus is on the students.”

***

AFTER THE ENCOUNTER with Stokes in the high school hallway, Ford straightened up. He graduated from Illinois State University with a degree in mass communication, a discipline his mother taught him about. When he wrote school papers, he showed them to her first, and she bathed them in red ink. He says now that her red pen taught him how to take a correction while still expressing himself, which he considers invaluable in his teaching career.

James Ford was a class clown in school, until a teacher set him straight. Now, he’s become a mentor to kids who remind him of himself.

While he was in college, he started a newsletter he called The Truth-Seeker’s Journal. He filled it with opinion-based reporting, intent on starting a conversation about issues of the day. (He remains particularly proud of the issue the paper produced after September 11, 2001.) The newspaper lived for three years until succumbing to the rush of Internet-based news outlets that drowned print publications.

While he wondered what he should do next with his life, he worked with disadvantaged students as a truant officer, director of a teen center, and volunteer mentor. He noticed how engaged the kids were when he talked to them. It slowly dawned on him that he was, in effect, teaching the kids. He went back to school at Rockford College to earn a master of arts in teaching.

He sees his role in the classroom as a higher calling, one he approaches with a single, simple goal: to be for his students what Stokes was for him. As a student teacher, he worked alongside the legend himself. He laughs at the memory of seeing Stokes in school again. “Surprised? I’m not surprised,” Ford says, mimicking Stokes’s reaction in a gravelly voice.

Ford is the son of a maintenance mechanic and an executive assistant. His grandparents, Wiley and Bertha Zachary, had been sharecroppers in Arkansas, years before he was born. As a boy, Ford took regular walks around Rockford with Wiley and watched as he said hello to just about everyone—a characteristic the grandson picked up and carried with him.  

When Ford and his wife, Barbara, started their own family, though, they decided that the future in Rockford looked, if not bleak, at the very least not as full of opportunity as they’d like. 

James and Barbara noticed Charlotte on Black Enterprise’s top 10 list of best cities for young professionals. When they started to look for a place to move to, they looked here. A college friend lived in town, so they came to visit and fell in love with it.

They saved up for a year, and after school ended in 2010, the Ford family moved to Charlotte without jobs waiting for them. They rented an apartment, and James spent weeks driving to schools, asking for work. He eventually was hired to teach world history at Garinger High School, where 87 percent of kids get free or reduced lunch and about a quarter are in the English as a Second Language program.

Ford, who in addition to teaching serves as the director of ministries at Sanctuary Charlotte Church, says he believes God’s hand helped put him there. He believes God has repeatedly placed him in jobs in which he serves young people in underprivileged communities. 

Everywhere he goes, he sees younger versions of himself. He confesses to students at the start of every school year that he was once a bad student who didn’t care about education, but look at him now. I grew up in a place like this, and if I can be successful, he shows and tells them, so can you

Kondra Rattley was Ford’s second principal at Garinger. She watched often as Ford shared his personal story in the classroom and in the hallway, always searching for a point of connection with students, always trying to be for them what Stokes was for him. She says his willingness to be open with students about his own struggles gives him uncommon credibility with them.

“He doesn’t fake or fluff,” she says. “He mimics what was done for him.”

***

LORI KRZESZEWSKI KEPT hearing Ford’s name from her students. She’s the executive director of the Behailu Academy, a nonprofit, after-school youth development program for kids in high-poverty areas. As students from Garinger stepped out of the van that carried them to the program each day, she’d hear them say: Mr. Ford this, or Mr. Ford that

“The kind of excitement that would be in their voice, there would be a real spark,” she says. “I was like, ‘Who is this Mr. Ford? I’ve got to find out who he is.’”

When she met him, she had the same reaction many of his peers have: “There’s something magical about him,” Krzeszewski says. He’s a board member at Behailu now. “He keeps it real for them. He doesn’t dumb things down. He doesn’t baby them.”

From his first day in the classroom, Ford knew he had the natural ability to teach. But that wasn’t enough. He wants to reach as many students as possible. He credits his principals for critiquing his teaching as his mom critiqued his papers. When he identifies weaknesses, he spends the summer—“the offseason,” he calls it—working on them.

Two years ago, he decided he was lecturing too much in class. He spent the summer preparing activities that would “immerse them in some sort of experience,” he says.

That fall, in a lesson about imperialism, he introduced a game he calls National Boundaries. He separated the class into four nations, with tape marking the boundaries. He started the lesson by asking the students if it was OK for one country to invade another for its natural resources. They said no.

Then he brought out Starbursts. He told the students that the pieces of candy represented natural resources. He picked a student to stand in the middle of the room, on the intersection of the lines of tape, and drop the Starbursts from shoulder height. The pieces scattered when they hit the floor, and each one belonged to whichever country it landed in, he told the class. Then he collected the pieces, dropped them again, and told the students to grab as many pieces as they could and eat the ones they grabbed. The students climbed all over each other in pursuit of candy. 

He asked them to try to rationalize the scenario: Five minutes earlier, they’d said it was wrong for one country to invade another. Then, they did exactly that. 

The students looked at their teacher and told him they’d done it because they were hungry.

“So are countries,” he responded.

***

EVERY WEEK WHEN he was a kid, Ford watched his dad pore over the TV Guide to highlight documentaries on The History Channel or Discovery Channel. Then he’d record them. He stockpiled enough that most nights, the television in the Fords’ home was tuned to a program that told a story from the past. 

Ford sees the subject he teaches as a uniting thread, connecting each of us to our pasts and hinting at our futures, and he says education is the way to make that future better than our past suggests it will be. 

As a reminder of that, he keeps in his house a piece of crystal. Inside the crystal is a piece of cotton, picked by his grandmother, Bertha, when she was a sharecropper. She brought the piece with her when she moved to Rockford. Ford asked if he could have it after she died, and now he displays it prominently on a shelf in his home, so he never forgets where he came from.

***

AFTER TWO WRONG TURNS and stopping two more people to ask for directions, Ford arrives at Charlotte Engineering Early College. 

No wonder he couldn’t find it—it’s one of the smallest buildings on campus and hidden in a far corner, away from other buildings. The contingent from the state board of education is gone already. But Will Leach, the principal of the Early College, which is a program for high school students, gives Ford a tour anyway. 

They enter a history class as students wrap up that day’s assignment. Ford works the room, just as he did at the board meeting. He goes from table to table, asking the students what their favorite sections of history are.

One boy, his braces gleaming under the fluorescent lights, his tie impressively tight considering that the day’s almost over, says he loves Roman history.

Ford’s body language changes, like a fisherman who feels a tug on his line. His walking momentum had been carrying him to his left. He stops, squares his shoulders and leans toward the boy. He starts to reel him in.

“Why?”

The boy says the Roman government devolved from a democracy into chaos before imploding. The boy suggests America is in the middle of the same downward spiral that devoured Rome. Ford smiles. Not because he thinks the answer is right or wrong, but because the kid’s found a connection between then and now, between us and them. And he knows that history can repeat itself, which is exactly the message Ford hopes his students learn from him.

Matt Crossman is a freelance writer based in Charlotte. Read his portfolio at mattcrossman.com, or follow him on Twitter: @MattCrossman_.


This year's other categories:
Charlottean of the Year 2014 (Arts): Hugh McColl
Charlottean of the Year 2014 (Sports): BB&T Ballpark
Charlottean of the Year 2014 (Public Service): Ann Tompkins
Charlottean of the Year 2014 (Philanthropy): Six Charities Worth Your Dollar
Charlottean of the Year 2014 (Volunteer): Rick McDermott 

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