Dr. June Atkinson
Hope Street Group Network Member Interview with Dr. June Atkinson, North Carolina State Superintendent
You started your career as a business education teacher and you understand the role educators have in preparing the next generation of America’s workforce. How has this informed your decisions as North Carolina’s state superintendent?
My work as a business education teacher has been an excellent background for me to fulfill my role as State Superintendent. One thing that I learned while walking the streets of Charlotte, NC—to find my students jobs—was that it’s important to be able to relate what students should know and learn to the business world. Having been a business-co-op teacher, I learned very quickly about how to make what I was teaching in my class relevant to working students.
I also learned that having business partnerships is a very critical part of gaining support for public education. Now as state superintendent, I find it very important to have a connection with businesses in North Carolina through the North Carolina Business Committee for Education, through BestNC, and through the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce. It’s important for public education to have business support because business people are also parents. Working with businesses is a way to get a double impact.
The other thing I learned is that it’s important to have good persuasive skills. As part of my work as a teacher, I had to convince business people to hire my students, and that required knowing the skills of my students, their knowledge base, and the areas that needed improvement. I felt as if I were a salesperson for my students. As State Superintendent, I believe it’s very important that I use persuasive skills to convince the General Assembly, the business community, teachers in the classroom, principals, superintendents, and others that the investment in public education is worth it.
Another skill that I learned as a business teacher is the whole notion that students can get very involved when they see the work they’re doing has an impact. For example, one of the strategies I used in the classroom was to ask students at the very beginning of the year—after they had gotten jobs—to interview people in their workplace. The students would use that information to determine what they would learn the entire year. That gave students the opportunity to be engaged and to be empowered in determining what they would learn, so they had an investment as to what was next. Consequentially, it was a rare day that I was asked, “When am I ever going to use this stuff?” or the students were not engaged, because they saw the benefit of learning what I was teaching. Through that exercise, I created in them a need to know. A secret I never shared with my students was that I had to change what I planned to teach very little. The big lesson now as I’m state superintendent is that it is very critical to involve people who are stakeholders when big decisions are made.
Like most states, North Carolina has a diverse socioeconomic landscape. How can teachers and teacher voice best address issues of educational equity?
There are many ways that teachers and teacher voice can be used to address educational equity. I believe teachers need to share their voice in their own communities, with their own friends, and with their own sphere of social interaction. Recently a person said to me, “I got out of teaching because it’s so bad and all my friends say it’s so bad.” Now, that doesn’t do the job that we need to do in education. We have to find positive things about education to share with others. I’m not saying we whitewash some of our challenges but we should always convey our enthusiasm for what we are doing to serve students. Teachers have to be salespeople and they have to use persuasion to convince the general public—the person at the checkout counter—that public education is worth the money and worth the effort.
Another way teacher voice can help is by using social media in a very professional way. I like Twitter a lot. If we had out 96,000 teachers in North Carolina putting on Twitter at least one success every single week, can you imagine the impact we would have? We have too few examples in the media of the great work happening in our schools. All of us are salespeople and we have to use our voice. I have used this example with staff members, when our graduation rate went to about 80%. I didn’t care where they were—whether it’s a wedding and you’re part of a toast. I want you to find some way to put into your toast that North Carolina has the highest graduation rate in the history of our state. We have to find ways to do that selling.
Use your voice with the General Assembly. Teachers do not take advantage of the voice they have as a citizen. Wouldn’t it be nice if 96,000 teachers in our state not only tweeted about success stories but also sent examples to General Assembly members? Think how powerful that could be. It can be a positive message with an identified need. I wish every teacher would read the book To Sell is Human by Daniel Pink.
North Carolina is also one of the few states that has two teachers on the State Board of Education as contributing members. One common thread is that when a teacher speaks, the State Board listens. Teachers, though, must have the facts and not just take someone’s word for it. One of the ways we lessen our credibility is by having facts that aren’t facts.
There’s a burgeoning conversation in North Carolina regarding the high value of treating teachers as professionals. What does mean to you and how does that impact students?
I always hold my shoulders up high and straight when I say I’m in education. I believe that every educator should hold their shoulders high and demand respect by the way they act and the way they talk. I would banish from anyone’s conversation, “I am just a teacher.” Say, “I am a teacher,” and be proud of it. Turn any negativity into something positive about education. I think that’s a starting point.
Work with principals to make sure that your school is inviting to kids. One of the best ways to get back the value of teachers is to develop great voters. One of these days the students you have are going to be voters. We never forget the teachers who made a huge difference to us and they were not the people who didn’t hold their heads up high and take pride in being a teacher. Taking pride and respecting our profession are very critical to get to that place.
The other way is as follows: teachers need to vote. It matters greatly who is elected as local Boards of Education, County Commissioners, General Assembly members, State Supreme Court members, and to the Court of Appeals. If we do not become a part of the political process and elect people who believe that public education is at the core of democracy and the path to economic development in our state and nation, regardless of party, then we are doing a disservice to our profession. Voting is extremely important, and we don’t have to carry signs and demonstrate, but teachers should work among themselves and apply peer pressure to go to the polls to vote. We have to work with each other when someone says, “I’m not paying attention, I have too much to do.” It’s our civic duty and responsibility to be a part of the political process.
Many North Carolina districts and charters have created effective partnerships with businesses and community members to support educators and students. Can you share an example of an effective model for including schools in the community or bringing the community into the schools?
Businesses have come together in Iredell County to offer business industry apprenticeships for a number of students. In Iredell County, they also have a career center and automotive technology program. That program covers all aspects of automotive technology, from customer service to fixing cars. They even have their own parts shop. The NASCAR community and many of the related industries support that program very much. Another good example is in Catawba County. Catawba County has at least 200 businesses involved where teachers and students can go for internships and for a better understanding of what’s needed for work.
The NC Business Committee for Education and the Department of Public Instruction have been sponsoring “Students at Work” for three or four years. Middle school students have the opportunity to go to businesses to visit for a day, or businesses can come to the school. An excellent example is in Asheville, NC. They have used the Biltmore House as well as the travel and tourism industry as a place to expand opportunities. Research shows if you can build a dream for a student, even if the dream is just for one day, those students are more likely to finish and graduate high school.
Another example is “Teachers at Work,” an initiative where 16 teachers are immersed in businesses and industry for a designated amount of hours during the summer. The teachers take the learnings from being in business and industry and turn them into a lesson plan for the classroom. We want to expand that program in the state.
Across your diverse and collaborative tenure, what North Carolina education accomplishment do you feel has been the most impactful?
Our raising of the graduation rate from 68% in 2005 to what will be over 85% for last year. We have not released that information yet, but I know our graduation rate will be above 85%. Every year since 2005-2006 we have had a historically high graduation rate. That’s a tribute to the kindergarten teacher, the second grade teacher. It’s a cumulative number expressing the hard work of children in school for 13 years.
Small things can have a huge impact on reaching goals. After being superintendent for a year, I started a graduation recognition ceremony. At that ceremony, I recognized the top ten school districts with the highest graduation rate and the top 2 schools by cohort size. I also started the 100% graduation club to recognize any high school that has a graduation rate of 100%. I am so pleased that we started with a handful of schools and now have, this year, over 50 to 75 schools recognized. As a result, it brought to the attention of school districts and people in leadership positions how important it is to focus on the graduation rate. It created a friendly competition. There’s hardly a luncheon we have where I don’t overhear superintendents saying to each other, “I’m going to beat you next year.”
We also had a change in policy. Before my tenure, the focus was on the drop out rate. The drop out rate, to me, is a negative approach. Graduation rate is a positive approach. The drop out rate is calculated annually, and we wanted districts to have a long-term view. With the graduation rate, it gives an incentive to go an extra mile to save students because the number is based on entering 9th graders finishing 4 years later. The goal was to change the conversation through a change in policy. As a consequence, many schools have set up different, innovative ways to save students who would have dropped out ten years ago.
How do you see NCDPI’s partnership with Hope Street Group benefiting the teachers and students of North Carolina?
I see Hope Street’s partnership with NCDPI as an excellent example of pollination. There aren’t enough people in the Department of Public Instruction to pollinate across NC all of the great ideas and great work. I see Hope Street as a being a part of the “family of bees.”
With teacher voice, it’s also very beneficial for us to hear from teachers. I believe Hope Street Group will be very instrumental—is very instrumental—in being able to pollinate good ideas, to be able to say, “Oh that hive you’re building won’t work for us.” I think it’s a good give-and-take relationship.
In order for us to continue to have great progress, such as our graduation rate, it’s important for us in the Department to listen to the voice of teachers. While we have difficulty in hearing the voices of 96,000 teachers, if we have representative teachers, such as we do with Hope Street Group, then we can get feedback that is meaningful to us.