For eight years, Kimberly Fullard has made her classroom in the New Hanover County Schools a place where relationships come first and anyone who walks in the door can feel the love.
Curriculum matters and her students demonstrate incredible learning and growth.
But curriculum, she said, can’t have its full impact without connections.
“A kid isn’t going to always say, ‘Hey, I had a bad night last night,’ or ‘I got in trouble this morning before I came to school,’ or ‘I’m not feeling well,’” when they’re struggling in class, she said. “You have to be able to know those silent cues… and they need to know that somebody’s got their back.”
In turn she shares her own stories with her students. They know what she was like as a kid. They know about the silly things her daughter does. And they know she really — really — doesn’t like change.
So it was a surprise to the families who love her at Edwin A. Anderson Elementary to hear that she won't be in the classroom this year. Fullard admits it’s a change even she didn’t see coming.
She was selected for the Pirate Leadership Academy at East Carolina University, a fellowship to help promising mid-career teachers become school principals. The program provides a full teacher’s salary as well as tuition, fees and textbooks for the two years it takes to complete a graduate degree, while allowing the teacher to be immersed in and contributing to her own district.
Thirty counties in Eastern North Carolina can each nominate one teacher to the program over the next five years.
“She was selected to represent New Hanover County Schools and she represents the best of what we have — a teacher leader,” said Anderson principal Dr. Krista Holland, who nominated Fullard for the fellowship.
Any time there has been an opportunity to improve the school — from serving on committees, to being a peer mentor or observer, to helping with family involvement — Fullard has been the first to volunteer, Holland said.
“It’s not from the perspective of ‘I want to be out front for recognition,’ it’s about ‘I want to grow as a professional,’” Holland said. “She’s going to contribute greatly to so many more children’s lives, because that's what happens when you move into administration. It moves beyond those 20-some children in your classroom.”
Initially, Fullard didn’t see herself taking that path.
“I told everyone, ‘You’re never going to get me out of the classroom. I’m going to teach until I’m dead. You’re going to have to have my funeral in the school,” she laughed.
But in the last few years she felt a tug to serve in a different way. When her principal and mentor told her she was the right person to represent the county in this fellowship, she demurred.
Then she looked at her fourth grade students.
“I thought, ‘My students know Ms. Fullard hates change, she likes things the way they are, but here she is doing what she always tells us to do,’” she said.
Particularly as a Black educator in a majority white school, Fullard said, she felt responsible for showing her students of color what taking a leap and believing in yourself can look like.
“I realized I’d be a hypocrite not to do it,” she said. “I can tell them all day long that you are capable of everything, but if I don’t take this opportunity and run with it, then that’s doing a disservice to my students.”
Holland said she can’t wait to see Fullard model the power of relationships — those touchpoints with students and families and colleagues — as a school leader.
“It doesn’t mean you’re everybody’s friend or you don’t have to make a hard decision, but it means you’re cognizant of people’s lives when you make that decision,” Holland said. “That’s the people who work for you, the families you work with, and ultimately it’s about children at the end of the day.”