Conversations are a big part of our work at Constructive Learning Design, and, lucky for us, we get to have conversations with some of the most dedicated and talented educators across North Carolina. We learn a great deal from these conversations, and instead of keeping all the insights to ourselves, we thought we’d share the wealth via this new blog series, Constructive Conversations. In this series, we will be highlighting educators across the state who are doing interesting and impactful things for our students. We hope you will learn as much as we do from these conversations.
For our first conversation we are speaking with Andrew Harris and Ben Owens, and we can think of no better way to begin. Though Andrew and Ben live in opposite corners of the state and took different paths to education, they share much common ground, including an instinct for innovation and a focus on equity.
Ben Owens is a former engineer. He left that profession to become a high school science and math teacher, but did not leave behind his engineer’s mindset of continuous improvement. Ben spent his teaching career at Tri-County Early College (TCEC) in Murphy, NC, where he and the rest of the TCEC staff created a learning community defined by openness and innovation, and driven by project-based learning. As of this summer, he has left the classroom to support other educators through his organization, Open Way Learning.
Andrew Harris is the CEO of the Northeast Academy for Aerospace and Advanced Technologies (NEAAAT), a regional public charter school in Elizabeth City. Andrew came into education as a lateral-entry science teacher and football coach. After teaching in Edenton-Chowan Schools and Perquimans County Schools, he transitioned into roles in instructional technology and administration, eventually becoming the principal of Bertie Early College High School. In 2014, he began working with a group in Elizabeth City to design a school of the future that would become NEAAAT.
This conversation is part one of three, and will focus on Ben and Andrew’s path to education, putting students at the center, the needs of rural students and communities, and teaching students’ problem-solving skills.
The Path to Education
Jay Korreck: Ben, tell us about your path to education.
Ben Owens: To say that I had a winding path into education is probably an understatement! I actually did the corporate engineering thing for 20 years before becoming a teacher, 18 of which was with DuPont in locations across the country.
It was a great career, working on intense challenges, traveling around the world, and with super smart people, but it also allowed me an insight into a problem that was happening at a national level: I was either directly or indirectly responsible for hiring talent at the manufacturing or R&D facilities where I worked.
And the same story kept repeating itself, where we would have difficulty finding the talent we needed for high-paying jobs for mechanics, operators, technicians, and even engineers. It wasn’t that we didn’t have applicants, it was because we couldn’t find in the pool of applicants folks who had the classic 21st-century skills that we often find listed on the mission statements in our schools– collaboration, critical thinking, problem-solving, accessing and analyzing information, effective oral & written communication, etc.
And the fact that this same thing was playing out in Nashville, Tennessee, Mobile, Alabama, Charleston, West Virginia, Santa Barbara, California and elsewhere, it told me we have a fundamental problem with the way we are doing teaching and learning in this country if we’re still seeing the same problem repeat itself again and again. I saw firsthand a real incongruence between the needs of our economy and workforce and the how our institutions are preparing young people to thrive in that economy.
I saw firsthand a real incongruence between the needs of our economy and workforce and the how our institutions are preparing young people to thrive in that economy.
So after a lot of consternation and thought, including going back to grad school, I decided to do something about it, rather than just bellyache about it. It’s worth noting that another influence was the fact that both of my parents were also educators, so I suppose it was really in my blood. That’s what ultimately led me to become a public school teacher in rural Appalachia.
Jay: And where did you grow up?
Ben: I grew up in Northeast Georgia, near Helen, Georgia– a goofy Bavarian village there– and after high school got a physics degree from North Georgia University, which was commuting-distance away. I then moved down to Atlanta and got a mechanical engineering degree from Georgia Tech.
Jay: And you said your parents were educators. What did they do?
Ben: Yeah, actually, my mom was the administrative assistant for the superintendent’s office. She also, for a period of time, was doing a similar role at a local college. My father was the head of the fine arts department at another college for almost 40 years. That’s why everybody just assumed that I would go into the arts, but my form of teenage rebellion was to become an engineer.
Jay: I love it when teenage rebellion leads you back to the straight and narrow. That’s a parent’s dream. So, Andrew, how about you? How did you first come to education?
Andrew Harris: I came into education as a lateral-entry teacher right out of college. I grew up in a pretty rural, small, high-needs area in northeast North Carolina, in the small town of Hertford. Kids in small towns often tend to think that they have to move away to be successful, and I was no different. I went off to the “big city” for college. After earning a bachelor’s of science in biology, I found myself really wanting to make a positive impact back home, so I found a job as a high school science teacher and football coach. I worked through the lateral-entry system to become fully certified. I started in Edenton-Chowan Schools here, and transitioned to Perquimans County Schools, taught and coached for a while, and then actually left the classroom to go to graduate school. I became the first graduate of the Masters of Biology program at Elizabeth City State University and, while I was there, did some research and also served as a lab assistant. So basically, I taught a few undergrad labs, and I supervised some research activities.
From there, I went back into the classroom as a science teacher and baseball coach in Perquimans County, where I eventually served in admin roles at a K-2 school and the high school. I then transitioned to Hertford County Early College as an instructional technology specialist, and that’s where I got my first taste of sort of doing school differently. Within a year of that move, I was offered a position as principal of Bertie Early College High School, which is an agri-science and biotechnology-focused early college. After a few years and some really cool stuff there, I moved on to the central office to become director of IT to oversee a full scale, 1-to-1 roll-out across the district. About a year later, I was hired by NC New Schools as a design coach and started working with a group out of Elizabeth City to design sort of a school of the future, a next-generation school with an aviation theme, and I was really excited about that work because of the impact I thought it would make for kids across the region and for education in general. And it was right here at home. So I was fortunate to accept the job as the founding CEO of that school and that leads me to today.
What’s in the best interests of students?
Jay: Andrew, you were leading a team that was designing the school that would become NEAAAT, and then at some point you decided that you didn’t want to just plan the school, but you might want to run the school. Tell me how you came to that decision.
Andrew: There were a couple of factors in play in that decision, and to be honest, it wasn’t an easy one at first. It was very risky, I knew the hours would be exceptionally long, and the countercurrent was huge. I had only worked in traditional public schools, so the idea of opening a charter school–no less opening one right here at home–carried a lot of weight for me, and not necessarily in a positive sense. At that time, I really didn’t know a lot about charter schools. And, you know, I had a pretty unbalanced viewpoint at that time. But in working with the board of directors, and especially our board chair and vice chair, it became really obvious that this was a group that was highly dedicated to truly doing something different and for serving all types of students.
You know, I had worked with some other schools and districts and there was this idea that, hey, let’s have an innovative school. But I don’t know that the support was really there sort of all the way around to make it happen. And I saw that type of supportive environment coming into fruition here in the northeast.
And at the same time, I mean, this was home for me. So the idea that there would be this regional innovative school, a STEM school no less, and I’m a STEM guy right here at home, just began to feel right. And it had to be successful. There was no–I felt really strongly about this–that there was no way, if it were in my power, that the school could be allowed to fail because it was too important for our region. And so I was really fortunate to be offered a chance to take that work on.
Ben: I just love listening to Andrew’s story about the evolution of his career. I mean, it’s so inspirational that even in the situation, Andrew, as you described it, where you were not necessarily a champion of charter schools. But you saw through that initial bias to find what was the most important thing for students and how then to get there in a way that leveraged the assets of your local community. If I may be so bold, it sounds like that was the common thread that kept bringing you back – What’s in the best interests of students? – as you were going through this career path that has landed you to where you are now and what you’re currently doing. Oftentimes we don’t get to hear that complete arc of a story, how it makes sense, and how it relates back to what’s best for students. So I just really find that so compelling.
Andrew: You know, I appreciate that. I think it surfaces a really important point. Twenty years ago, the educational landscape was far different than it is now. And when we look out to the challenges that face rural areas, they’re myriad. They’re deep. And they require solutions for a new generation. I mean, we need to truly be led by what’s best for students, what holds the most promise, not by outdated systems. So I think there’s just a new day in education. And if we constantly focus on what’s best for students, and take the politics away, it’s amazing what we can uncover.
Jay: You both touched on and have spent all or most of your education experience in rural places. Ben, you’re in Appalachia and the southwest corner of the state, and Andrew, you’re all the way in the northeast corner. Andrew, you mentioned the myriad and deep needs and issues facing rural communities when it comes to education. Can you talk about some of those needs?
Andrew: In general, there are the things we often hear about–low educational attainment, high unemployment, grandparents raising children. And then there are the ones we don’t hear as often, like the fact that rural students also lack exposure to what might be pretty common in urban areas. I mean, I can remember while working for NC New Schools, going to see some of the schools in urban areas of our state, and just taking a few minutes to sit down on the bench and look around. I mean, our rural students often don’t have even that base-level exposure to a lot, from museum hangings with the names of famous artists and explorers in bold print to the various languages that are spoken and foods that are served within just a few blocks. The culture is very different in rural areas, resources are sparse, and so there are pretty significant challenges there when we use words and phrases like “globalism” and “preparing students for the global workforce”.
But I think one of the most pressing issues I’ve seen across rural areas of North Carolina is that there tends to be almost an absence of hope that things can be better and will be better, and that we’re the folks that can and will make that reality happen. There also seems to be among many of our students just a lack of awareness and conviction that they can do great things.
You know, we tend to see people making headlines in other places, larger places, and we see NASA scientists and astronauts. If you’re sort of out in the sticks, those types of realities might as well be as far away as Mars, because they seem like such remote opportunities that they’re just intangible. And to me, that is a tremendous challenge for us in rural areas.
Jay: I agree that the simple, at least simply stated, act of exposing students to other parts of the state, and making opportunities seem more tangible is powerful. I think of a trip to Hunt Library that we put together for students from Bladen Early College, and the gratitude they expressed for being able to see that building was really cool. Ben, from your work down in Murphy, what do you see as the particular needs of rural communities and rural students when it comes to education?
Ben: I could almost repeat verbatim what Andrew just mentioned. Sure, demographically, it’s two completely different populations. But what is common with these schools and schools in other rural areas that they are typically serving under-resourced communities where the manufacturing base, for whatever reason, has either left or been significantly downsized. And a lot families are struggling just to make ends meet.
Some of the same problems that plague Eastern North Carolina are very similar to what we face here in rural Western North Carolina and in other rural parts of this state and country. We are facing problems with the opioid crisis, with economic instability, with kids being raised by grandparents, or in foster homes, lack of adequate access to high-quality healthcare, geographic isolation, and even cultural stigmas. And to somehow assume that these issues don’t affect our students and their ability to learn is just crazy. It was something I was guilty of early in my teaching career.
I obviously faced a number of cultural changes coming from a high-paid, multinational corporate job into teaching in a trailer in Murphy, North Carolina, but this was one of the biggest: In the bubble I lived in before, I never had to be confronted with a kid who didn’t have food stability from Friday to Monday, because school was the only place where they could at least got two decent meals a day. I didn’t have to be confronted with kids who just had one pair of sneakers, or one jacket, or were dealing with trauma in a way that I was just completely ignorant of in my, honestly, privileged upbringing.
We are facing problems with the opioid crisis, with economic instability, with kids being raised by grandparents, or in foster homes, lack of adequate access to high-quality healthcare, geographic isolation, and even cultural stigmas. And to somehow assume that these issues don’t affect our students and their ability to learn is just crazy.
But this is the reality of where I am, where Andrew is, and where many of the schools I currently work with are and it’s paramount that we do something about it. Something transformational and not just window-dressing that allows our opportunity gap to continue to widen. I guess that alludes to a question that’s going to come up later: “why are we in this gig at all?” The answer has to be because of these students – especially these students who have historically, for no fault of their own, been furthest from opportunity.
It’s my view that we have a moral imperative to do something differently. We can’t just keep relying on what I call the institutionalized inertia of the status quo somehow change with buzzword initiatives and produce amazingly different results than they have seen in the past. It’s simply not going to happen.
We have to fundamentally change the paradigm and create the conditions for radical transformation. And so what I like so much about what Andrew mentioned and what you alluded to as well, Jay: The power of story.
By telling the story of how TCEC and NEAAAT are finding ways to overcome the status quo is offering other education stakeholders a glimpse into what’s possible – exposure to a different paradigm. It offers a mindset change that says, even schools that are just about as far from Raleigh as one can get, can actually reclaim the potency of a K12 education. It says that a high school diploma can actually mean something again if it’s done in the context of making tangible and valuable real-world connections between traditional academic content and what I would argue are skills and dispositions that are equally or more important for these young people to thrive in a rapidly changing world. Skills that, quite frankly, I wasn’t able to easily find in industry: the critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, and believing both in themselves and believing that they can make a difference in the world, regardless of where they are from.
That’s the hope and inspiration that brings me to this work, that, yes, these kids, even from Murphy or Elizabeth City, North Carolina, can actually be the ones that solve the really messy problems, the wicked problems that need to be solved in our world. We’ve just got to create the conditions for that to happen, and then let them go. When we do, we can just step back and watch the magic happen.
Andrew: Ben, to comment on what you just said, I’m almost of the opinion now that whereas traditionally in education we’ve been focused on content and the skills came alongside, now, we almost have to place greater emphasis on skills and use the content to do it. So whereas in the past we had our focus on standards–and before anyone has a heart attack, I do know that standards are very important–now we have to sort of take the meta view of that and say, how can we assemble (what may seem to some as) disparate content areas to really help students develop next-generation skills? And I think that there’s a huge gap and a huge need for that shift to happen.
Ben: Absolutely! I couldn’t agree more. And, honestly, as y’all both know, I’m a huge advocate of project-based learning. And you nailed it, Andrew, for why I’m such a huge advocate. It’s because the real world doesn’t silo problems. It doesn’t say, we’re going to do a math problem today or a history problem tomorrow.
It says here’s a problem, draw on whatever skills, knowledge, and resources you need to solve it. The cool thing about PBL is that it allows our students to use intentional design processes to solve these kind of problems routinely, including some that have societal or community impact. They learn that doing so takes collaboration to leverage every idea from many different curricular areas in order to empathize, define, and bring solutions to the table. Learning is no longer passive and abstract because it’s related to things students care about. It also helps them develop the kind of skills and dispositions they will use for a lifetime, regardless of academic or career goal.