Today was an incredible day as our Piedmont-Triad Regional Support Team was able to visit the Academy at Middle Fork, a lab school located in Walkertown near Winston-Salem. This lab school is one started and supported by Appalachian State University, one of the best education schools in North Carolina and beyond.
Lab schools are institutions sponsored and supported by one of North Carolina’s public institutions. These schools are designated to be innovative learning centers with access to high quality resources and professors. Additionally, these schools are provided flexibility similar to what is given to charter schools allowing them to become incubators of high quality learning for students while serving as a model for other schools across the state.
Upon entering the Academy at Middle Fork, I was struck the calm and focused demeanor of the students. I saw a portion of a lesson being taught by the media coordinator that helped students learn how to take screenshots on their chromebooks. Students were learning how to do a “cropped” screenshot of a Google Slides deck so that only a desired portion of the screen was captured. It is important that students early these fundamental skills early and practice them often. Following this quick observation, our tour started and the positive, nurturing culture of the school was immediately apparent.
As we traveled from classroom to classroom, we saw students engaged in their learning, teachers teaching, and a positive, reaffirming culture radiating throughout the school. Classrooms showcased student work. The work seemed to revolve around a key theme of the importance of self worth and value. Work displayed outside the classroom echoes this same feeling. The school’s motto “Learning Together” was more than just a saying; it is a way of life. We saw educators adjusting teaching practices to support the various needs of different learners continuously throughout the building. The principal spoke kindly and warmly to all students throughout the building and praised their good behavior. She also checked in on students who may have needed additional support during the school tour as well. Her choice of words were kind and reaffirming and cohesive in living into the “learning together” way of life at the Academy at Middle Fork.
As we toured the building, I also noted one thing that was notably different from some of the other schools that I have toured. The principal spoke positively of her staff. Granted this is not unusual but as we traversed through the building, she was able to share amazing caveats about different staff members ranging from those who were earning or had just earned their graduate degrees. She also shared that many staff members were involved in various school initiatives such as completing Orton-Gillingham training as well as moving forward to become trainers in this area as well. As I reflect on this, she was sharing the Academy's best practice - the school empowers their staff members. She had one younger teacher who would be traveling to Appalachian State later this week to share about his experience and received additional recognition.
Seeing how the school empowers their staff members was extraordinary. In this day and time when schools are struggling to recruit teachers for each classroom, this lab school seems to be onto a powerful strategy. When a school empowers all of their staff members (and not just a select few), a culture is created that supports all students to learn at high levels. By building up the capacity of staff members and sharing the importance of believing in them, schools create better learning outcomes for all students and a powerful experience that transforms lives and the trajectory of students. This is precisely my main takeaway from my visit to the Academy at Middle Fork. Their leadership is quick to let you know that they do not have all the answers and are still striving to solve many problems and challenges. But they have implemented a foundation where they empower and encourage their staff to be bold and courageous in developing their pedagogy and experiences that results in powerful learning opportunities for all students. While the school is still striving to address the challenges associated with students returning from Covid, it is clear that they are resolute on creating a culture that encourages and empowers their staff. Because of this, the students benefit and they can dream more and create better outcomes for their future.
Many educators from North Carolina and beyond are just returning home to their communities this evening. For the past three days, we have convened our first face to face NCTIES event since prior to the pandemic. It has been just over two years since educators who believe in digital teaching and learning met and it was a joyful experience for sure.
This event, attended by over 2200 educators, met in downtown Raleigh and heard sessions from fellow classroom educators on a variety of EdTech topics and beyond. NCTIES, founded in 1971, is an organization that exists to serve our educators. NCTIES is regularly one of the largest education conferences in the state and was attended by educators from Virginia, Georgia, South Carolina, and beyond. This year’s theme “Better Together” lived up to expectations. For many of us, this was the first time that we had seen, hugged, and greeted each other in two years. Needless to say, it was a joyous reunion. Even educators who did not know each other seemed to embrace strangers. \
For me, as a NCTIES board member, it was exhilarating working to set up the conference ensuring that rooms had the needed audiovisual equipment, making sure that our vendors knew where to set up their exhibits, and working all details to maximize the experience of our attendees. In the past, NCTIES has always had a positive and upbeat vibe. But this year, the energy was even more incredible. I saw educators supporting complete strangers as they presented. I was educators encouraging their colleagues to dream big. I heard educators sharing many stories of hope and frustration during the pandemic. But most importantly, I witnessed educators embracing and supporting each other. I spoke to many educators that I did not know during the conference and exchanged authentic and supportive words of support. I saw many educators courageously present for the first time ever. While some of these educators were a bit nerve out about presenting face to face, audience members helped them feel at ease while offering kind words. Many sessions involved educators sharing their innovative ideas and solutions on problems such as helping our students develop healthy relationships with technology, engagement practices, and how to deliver effective SEL lessons.
In the end, what I saw at NCTIES is what is best about educators and humanity in general. We want others to be successful. In doing so, we can offer our best thinking and support to empower and help each other grow. I saw attendees develop powerful connections though positive relationships. Collaboration was rampant both inside and outside of sessions. It was these acts of humanity that really capture the essence of NCTIES - educators uniting and growing together to be better equipped to serve our students and schools. Attendees left with powerful ideas that will transform their classrooms and schools. But more importantly, educators will remember how it felt to reconnect with others for the first time in two years and their amazing experience #bettertogether.
The ideas shared here are my own and do not necessarily represent my employers, associations, or organizations. These thoughts are entirely my own.