I Am the Bridge

Last week, NHCS hosted the 7th Annual Legislative Luncheon. NHCS Teacher of Year – Angela Hewett – Art Teacher at Ashley High School – was one of the presenters. Her inspirational speech, I Am the Bridge, brought a standing ovation and is posted below as this week’s blog.

I AM the BRIDGE by Angela Hewett

I never sought to be “teacher of the year” and I still haven’t reconciled that title with the way I perceive myself. This has been a year of personal reflection and professional stretching. I have over-analyzed my motives, all of my methods, and even my mission as a teacher. But I have also expanded my scope of awareness and sphere of influence. Sometimes, I’ve been uncomfortable with the attention, but I assure you, the entire time, I have been committed to the experience. Hidden behind the public appeal of the billboards, gifts, press, and even the Prius, I silently accepted this as an honor, a season to grow, and an opportunity to make a difference beyond my classroom.

My focus and reward as a teacher have always been my students’ successes. I am hyper-aware of my role and responsibility in the moments I share with them. I’m grateful for the waves of stories I hold dear in my memory that tell of my impact in student lives and their impact in mine. If you and I were sippin’ a coffee right now, it would be those stories that I would share. We would laugh…at some point, I would probably cry…and you would quickly get a sense of my love for teenagers and my passion for growing them as adults and artists. But in this setting, this one opportunity I’ve been given to address all of you, I feel compelled to share some of the needs in our schools, in honest reflection, and to encourage you in your uniquely significant role to help address those needs.

I’ve evolved in many ways throughout my career, but I’ve consistently been an observer, a sponge, and (maybe even) an over-thinker in regards to our system and I continually come back to the image and the metaphor of a bridge. Each of my 13 years in teaching has been filled with exciting opportunities, but each has had its share of discouraging and overwhelming challenges as well. Today, I will highlight one divide, one disconnect, and one opportunity in our system that persist despite our good intentions and our collective efforts. I believe giving sincere attention to these challenges will propel us forward and I believe that we are the ones to do it. I believe that each of us in this room is a bridge.

The public schools of New Hanover County are not an extension of our community. They are not a mere part. They are evidence of the value our community places on education and they are the primary indicator of our future. In our public schools, we teach, guide, and nurture students from pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade. We can’t forget that we have direct influence for nearly 15 years of each student’s life!  My work, my decisions, my relationships, and even my spirit are all grounded in this simple truth. No matter your professional position, I’m sure you can say the same. So it is firmly planted in this common ground that I confidently address three areas we can bridge together.

We can bridge the divide of inequity through awareness and accessibility.

A need of any people group, a need of any school, even a need of one family is fundamentally a need for our entire community. We know the issues of the family become the issues of our schools. We also know unaddressed issues of today become the critical issues of tomorrow. Only when their most primary and urgent needs are met, can students learn and thrive. No individual entity or singular attempt can identify and solve the challenges and the inequities that exist in our society.

Our school personnel are relationally positioned to detect, monitor, and address needs and concerns. Our school buildings are physically positioned, all throughout our city, to make us a prime location for incorporating essential information that creates an effective avenue connecting families to solutions. I’d love to see us capitalize on our existing local resources as we strategically combine our focused efforts with a shared mission. I encourage us to remember that many families are not aware of available services within our county or transportation and financial hardships prevent them from accessing them. We can build a stronger bridge for families to connect to appropriate agencies, organizations, ministries, and services. Our success in this area will rely on alert and empathetic teachers, informed support staff, and the sustained commitment across our district to strengthen existing partnerships and to forge new ones.

As leaders, we can bridge the disconnect between policy and progress.

Experiencing professional recognition as NHCS Teacher of the Year while simultaneously walking in career uncertainty resulted in a season of inner conflict. House Bill 13 unearthed a divisive sentiment across our state and created fear in teachers, like me, that countless jobs would be cut. To satisfy a new class size formula for K-3, this policy could have forced districts to forego vital programs, created subsequent class-size increases, and required millions of dollars toward physical space. These consequences could have negated decades of growth in our state and given families legitimate reasons to seek alternatives for their child’s education. Improvement in one area of our system, at the expense of others, is not true progress.

I am using HB 13 as one example from this current school year to make this timeless point: policy must match reality in North Carolina schools. Otherwise, it is financial loss and it is opportunity loss. Policies should not cultivate a mindset in our leaders to react and survive. Policies should promote a mindset to innovate and thrive. Instead of battling erroneous and counterproductive policies, irreplaceable time and energy should be spent dreaming about possibilities for the years ahead of us. Political leaders, educational leadership, and teachers should be navigating new ideas, refining practices, and innovating harmoniously to the benefit of our public school system and, ultimately, our students.

Those of us in this room must be the bridge between policy and real progress in our schools by being and echoing the voices of teachers and school leadership who are devoted to success in every corner of our system.

This leads to my final challenge: We must extend a bridge beyond status quo.

New Hanover County Schools has a legacy of academic and athletic achievement because of its devoted personnel and public support. I’m so proud of our commitment to Beginning Teachers, Exceptional Children, and the Arts. Early college and dual-enrollment options, Sea-Tech, and Career Readiness Academy at Mosley all offer non-traditional avenues of success for students. Our Pre-K sites elevate our youngest to opportunity and J.C. Roe Center transitions our students through difficult times. Between the arts performances, clubs, competitions, and athletics, our district is active and engaged, day and night, year after year! We have a profound presence in our community and we are a persistent symbol of hope.

However, serious needs still exist in our schools. We need quality teachers, capable bus drivers, more administrators and more support staff to manage the growing responsibilities of our schools. We need applicable professional development, relevant assessment for students and transformative assessment for teachers. We need increased wages and incentives to attract and retain the best personnel in all positions because our students deserve our very best. We need sufficient technology that promotes future-ready learning and systemic efficiency. We need instructional innovation, more negative behavior prevention measures, and more crisis interventions. We need to better guide and prepare each student for a personal-best future beyond graduation. We also need the physical space to grow and the assurance we are safe.

The obvious solution is far from easy, but it is simple. We need funding! We have to move forward now with soul-deep conviction that our students, our teachers, and our communities deserve even better. We have to show now the fiscal proof that we collectively believe education is worthy of our lavish investment. We have to build a bridge together now that provides a pioneer education for the generations to come.

I’ve considered for weeks how to advance lasting change from this one brief speech. I just want it to matter. I recognize the points I’ve made take time and require involvement. So through support of Dr. Markley and Crystal Buie, I give you a pin. The statement “I am the bridge” encircles an image resembling the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. For Wilmington to thrive, bridges are essential; they are not optional. For our students, so are you! I hope you’ll ponder all the implications of this bridge metaphor. And I hope you’ll choose to wear this pin as a visual declaration of our collective commitment to bridge the divide of inequity, tie policy to progress, and extend our current status to a vanguard one. I hope you’ll wear it to spark conversation and ideas, evoke continued thought toward growth and solutions, and refresh our minds and hearts with the reminder that we are serving our community together in this crucial time in public education.

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