New Hanover County Schools




2023-2024 Educator of the Year, Fatima Sail

Teacher, Fatima Sail in front of a large globe image
Fatima Sail is effervescent, but don’t let the ear-to-ear grin, encouraging words, and springing thumbs up fool you: She’s a fighter.
Teacher, Fatima Sail in front of a large globe image




Growing up with four older brothers in a little village on the Ziz River in south-central Morocco, she realized at an early age that education was going to provide her only path forward in a patriarchal culture.

classro9om with concrete floors, old wooden desks and discolored paint on the walls.

But it was never easy.

“Even in elementary school I had experience with rude teachers and there was no help,” she said. “There was no IEP, there was no help for disabled kids. If you understand, you understand the material, if you don't, you’re on your own.”

She wouldn’t be deterred.

“I thought that I deserved that education,” she said, “and I needed to get it.”

At the beginning of each semester she tells her French students at Ashley High School her story.

Fatima Sail, teacher stands with two thumbs up while talking with her students

How she earned a master’s in engineering in Morocco and found work in the male-dominated field of street planning, where she often faced harassment.

How when the Arab Spring brought upheaval to the region in 2012, she packed up what she calls “a small bag full of dreams with few clothes” and moved by herself, knowing no one, to the United States.

“All we knew about America was Michael Jackson, Madonna, Marlboro, Winston… all these ads we saw back home in the 90s,” she laughed. “But I thought, ‘It’s the land of freedom, the land of opportunity.’”

How while trying to figure out next steps she worked for three years as a waitress in New Jersey, an experience that taught her more about American culture and forming relationships that she ever could have known.

Teacher works one on one with a student in her class

“People can come to you and they tell you about their problems. They don't know you and you just have to give that support,” she said. “I learned how we human beings need that connection to each other.”

And she tells them how when she moved to Wilmington and went back to school at Cape Fear Community College, she saw for the first time that not all teachers were like the ones she had grown up with.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this is education in the United States? Teachers are nice?” she recalled. “You can fix your mistakes and they are willing to help you, willing to sit down with you and explain? That was big, big news.”

When CFCC gave her the opportunity to tutor students in math and French, one of the languages she had learned in Morocco, she realized that she could be a teacher like the ones she’d met in the U.S.: Individualizing instruction, finding fun and flexible ways to explain concepts, and showing empathy for learners.

teacher assists student while in her classroom. Images of flags and other countries  are on the walls

New Hanover County Schools’ residency model and Beginning Teacher program helped her get her certification while teaching French, and on Friday she will graduate from UNC-Charlotte with her second master’s — in Foreign Language Education.

She knows what it’s like to feel like you don’t belong, so she makes sure every student feels represented and seen in her classroom.

Her students fill out detailed questionnaires at the start of the semester asking about the holidays they celebrate and the languages they speak at home, and she subtly works that into her curriculum.

“It’s very important for me to provide that inclusive and safe environment where everyone can feel represented,” she said.

She starts each day with the students asking each other “Comment ça va?” or “How are you?” in French. Even in her introductory classes, the language barrier can form a buffer where it’s okay to share with classmates that you don’t know how you’re feeling.

“We talk about social currency a lot in my classroom,” she said. “All of us have so many struggles in the background. But if I come and say good morning and care for you, it’s going to go to your heart.”

And she tells her students about her incredible story because her belief in the life-altering power of education is what propelled her to this place.

thank you notes pinned to a bulletin board for Fatima Sail

“I say listen, if I was born here, I would be the President,” she laughs. “You have everything available for you. Great teachers, all the resources for your success. You have everything — it's on you now. You need to get motivated, get inspired, and go after that education.”