These longtime teachers share what education means to them amid the challenges of teaching during a pandemic
Photography by John Michael Simpson
SEEING THE BIGGER PICTURE
Leslie Burwell sees every new class of students as a fresh canvas, another chance to inspire creativity. “That’s what keeps me in education,” says Leslie, describing the talent she sees in her classroom studio at Northwood High School in Pittsboro. “They blow me out of the water.”
The 26-year teaching veteran disputes the claim some people make about teenagers wasting time on arts and crafts. “No, they’re not … they’re creative,” she says, adding that open-ended prompts can help students make connections. “They are so intelligent, and they’re putting their focus into what they’re passionate about. We just need to find what they love and then let them have enough time [to express it]. I feel like the arts are so connected to emotion, and [it] is a really great tool to teach them critical thinking.”
Leslie, who initially planned a career in art therapy, has an interdisciplinary bachelor’s in psychology, theater and art from the University of South Carolina. She earned a post-baccalaureate certificate in art education from Meredith College and is a master’s candidate in art education at East Carolina University.
“[It’s] a privilege being a visual arts teacher at the high school level,” she says, recalling a long list of former students who have careers in a creative profession or have become art teachers themselves. “That makes me really proud to know that I’ve impacted those lives enough [for them] to become educators. … It’s a difficult profession, and it doesn’t make as much money as other professions, but it’s a joy.”
Leslie grew up visiting museums with her art teacher mother as her father’s ministry took them from one city to another. Her mentors today are still producing art and teaching well into their 70s. “I’m not sure if I can physically do art teaching and set painting and all the things I do when I’m 70,” she says. “I really do believe that I could still be contributing. The plan is not to really retire from teaching but to have a studio.”
Although Leslie paints when she carves out time for herself, she is still drawn to the classroom as her canvas. “Teachers are really valuable,” she says. “And what we do in the classroom live is not easily duplicated.”
The pandemic prompted sudden shifts between in-person and virtual classes. Some teachers had their own learning curve with technology. “I think that we as educators just really didn’t understand [online classrooms] until the pandemic.”
But Leslie sees opportunities for students and teachers alike to add virtual platforms to their repertoire of skills. And she is grateful to the students who are able to show up for any class. “I just had to adjust my expectations,” she says about the challenges in connecting to reliable internet service. “They made the effort. When your students are coming to class and getting something from what you’re teaching and making art – that makes your day as an educator.” – by Anna-Rhesa Versola
ON A MISSION
A passion project has Valencia Toomer‘s full attention – the School of the Arts for Boys Academy. She says her vision to use art as a platform for learning can help close the achievement gap for boys, especially for those in underserved populations.
“Art has a way of speaking to everyone,” she says. “When you don’t have the right words to say, the arts speak for you, whether it’s in visual form or metrical form or music. It motivates you and moves you. When we think about SABA, that’s what we want.”
Valencia resigned from her position as principal of George Moses Horton Middle School in Pittsboro just as the pandemic began to shut down schools nationwide. “I poured everything I had into the school,” she says. “That’s just who I am. If I’m in it, I’m giving it everything I have.” Valencia, who has a bachelor’s in elementary education and teaching from UNC Charlotte, has been a teacher and a school administrator for about 20 years.
She took advantage of the pandemic pause to research and write the charter application for SABA, which she expects to open in August 2022 with 116 boys in third through fifth grades, though Valencia says interest in the middle school grades may prompt an amendment to the existing charter to include sixth grade. The school will be located adjacent to the Knight Farm Community Park in Chatham Park and will not incur leasing costs because the landowners, a family who wishes to remain anonymous, want to support the school and its mission, according to Valencia.
“If you look at statewide data, boys, in general, are performing below that of females,” Valencia says. “When you couple that with educationally or economically disadvantaged boys, the data only worsens. And boys are typically shy when it comes to the arts.”
Valencia’s research validates her observations and experiences within educational systems. She says data for Chatham County shows a widening achievement gap for boys of color. “And it was me looking at it saying, ‘What can I do?’ We should be able to do more.”
She remembers one particular fourth-grader in her first year of teaching who had trouble with academic subjects but thrived in art. “[He] was an artist, but people never saw that because they saw how he looked on the exterior with his unkempt clothes and his hair … [and how] he used inappropriate language,” Valencia says. “They didn’t get to know him.”
With Valencia’s patient support in his fourth and fifth grades, he improved his academic work and his relationships with fellow classmates. But by high school, he fell through the cracks of the public school system again and ended up in prison at age 14. “This is a nationwide issue,” Valencia says. “It’s bigger than Chatham. We just have to get started somewhere, and the seed is germinating here.” – by Anna-Rhesa Versola
PAYING IT FORWARD
The first year of teaching can either make or break you, says Gary Oakley, a science teacher at Chatham Charter School in Siler City. “I honestly thought I would never teach again,” he says. “I think I had $25 left in checking and savings and [was] living with my parents. And I said, ‘This is my degree. I’ve got to give it another try.’”
This year marks his 38th year as an educator, having taught chemistry and earth science at three Chatham high schools – Jordan-Matthews, Northwood and Chatham Charter. Outside the classroom, Gary coaches cross-country track and, in his own time, helps beautify and maintain the trails they use for practice and races.
In fact, he often gives his time and energy to helping people around him. “Sometimes, there are moments when we [teachers] don’t realize our impact,” Gary says, remembering a student early in his career that he tutored for hours in chemistry. He received an emotional letter from that same student 17 years later, thanking him for the lessons she learned.
The student’s letter explained how the time Gary spent with her meant that she was worth the extra effort. She applied this lesson to difficult moments in her own life. This revelation brought a new perspective to his teaching career: how meaningful it could be “just spending time with kids and letting them know they’re important enough to try to work with,” Gary says. “It turned out to be a really important day to her, and [her letter] reminds me to keep in mind that, when I’m spending time with kids, this could be more important to them.”
Gary also had people who gave time and attention to help him, and he’s paid it forward. As a chemistry major at UNC, Gary was unsure of what to do with his interests in French and music. “I really didn’t know what I wanted to do,” recalls the Northwood valedictorian. “I was more of a country kid. I grew up on a farm and didn’t see how I could turn [those passions in language and music] into a career.”
Gary walked past the education building while exploring UNC’s campus, and he remembered his experience teaching Bible study. He turned, entered the building and “in the end, I decided that’s where I was meant to be,” he says. – by CC Kallam
STRIVE FOR PROGRESS, NOT PERFECTION
Beverly West says she was born to teach. “I believe it’s a gift and a calling, and it is who I am,” she says.
Her first student was her younger brother; their school didn’t offer kindergarten, and Beverly wanted to be sure he would be ready for first grade. Today, Beverly teaches second graders at Woods Charter School in northeastern Chatham County.
“I love seeing people learn,” Beverly says. “I like learning myself. I really appreciate gaining and applying new knowledge, and that’s just where my heart is.”
Beverly, who joined the Woods Charter staff in 2011, has a bachelor’s in health education and biology from UNC Greensboro and a master’s in public health education with a concentration in policy and planning from UNC. She draws on her experience working in a variety of educator roles: as a substitute teacher in Chatham and Orange counties; a pastor alongside her husband, Hubert West, at Healing Waters Christian Fellowship since 1993; a health educator in a county public health department; a home-school teacher to her two now-grown sons, Brenton and Aaron; a tutor; and as a program coordinator for North Carolina’s first dispute settlement center in Chapel Hill, where she helped train mediators in court-appointed cases dealing with the emotional and mental well-being of clients, including students.
No matter the setting, Beverly’s class motto is, “Today and every day, I will do my best!”
This positive attitude helped her when the pandemic prompted a sudden shift from in-class learning to the virtual platform. She confronts challenges and struggles head-on in her classes, leading to growth and learning. It’s not the grade a student makes that’s important to Beverly – it’s the effort to improve. “I would say the most rewarding part is helping individual students reach their potential or as close to it as possible,” Beverly says.
The transition back to the classroom will have its own challenges this fall.
“[It’s going to take] a lot of planning, a lot of deep breathing and just staying on top of it, and trusting the children, their resiliency and the parental support,” Beverly says, adding that she appreciates the assistance from colleagues and the school administration throughout the past school year. “It was the greatest challenge that I’ve had since I’ve been an educator, and I think that’s probably true for the majority.”
Her passion for teaching remains constant, even during a pandemic. “Your heart needs to be there, for the children, for wanting to educate,” she says. – by CC Kallam