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“Being a teacher is being a superhero. The kids think you can walk on water, pick up mountains and move them around because they have this genuine pure interest in whatever you have to say. If you can grab that in them, they can go far,” said Bailey Elementary School teacher Jessica Bland, who recently was named Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools’ 2019-20 Teacher of the Year.
Bland, a graduate of East Carolina University who grew up in Franklin County, said while she always had a knack for teaching and worked well with children, she always thought she would be an attorney. However, after watching the interaction of the educators in her family within the community and volunteering in an elementary classroom as a high-schooler, she decided instead to pursue a career in education.
“I loved being able to help. I wanted to make a difference,” said Bland. “My uncle’s students from 20 and 30 years ago would talk about something that he said to them or something that he did that stayed with them. And when I started to think about remembering what people said to me, the things that stuck were from teachers.”
A second-grade teacher, Bland is somewhat of an institution at Bailey Elementary, having come on board as a faculty member when the building was constructed in 2004.
“I tell the kids I came with the bricks. I’ve been in the same room since I started, teaching first and second grade.”
Fifteen years later, Bland said her experience has taught her that while everything is not always perfect, it always works itself out and is worth it. Watching her first class of students graduate from high school, she said, was one of her most rewarding experiences.
“Watching them graduate knowing that first year I had no clue what I was doing, and they made it. The first year of teaching is one of the most overwhelming moments. It’s mentally exhausting. It’s physically exhausting. You don’t know. You’re not sure, but they’ve left these twenty-some people staring at you, and they don’t know that you’re new. They just want you to do what you’re supposed to do.”
One of the challenges Bland said she faces and works hard to overcome is that lack of exposure many of her students have by living in a small community and not having the money or resources to travel.
“We do a lot of virtual field trips online, and we try to bring in guests. You can’t take but so many trips and still get the curriculum in. When it comes to being able to write, if they haven’t seen it, it’s hard to write about it. If you say ‘Write about the beach’ and you’ve never been, you have no idea what it feels like to put your feet in the sand. You have no clue what the ocean sounds like. We have a lot of kids that won’t get that kind of exposure if they don’t get it from us.”
As Teacher of the Year, Bland said she plans to use her platform to motivate and inspire her fellow educators.
“I want to remind the world of the impact that teachers really have. It’s easy to say that we complain about how much we make or we complain about our work or complain about the curriculum. But we spend more time with children than they usually spend with their parents during the week,” Bland said. “To remember the true impact we have and the difference we can make if we could all work together would be my biggest goal. Teaching is a profession to be held in high esteem because we stand in a gap that is so large, and we fill it as the nurse, doctor, psychiatrist, everything. Sometimes we clothe them, feed them, send them back home, love them.
“The ones that get that at home, we just double it up. The ones who don’t, well, it’s an even bigger gap for us to fill. So we have to remember our why on our best day, and remember our why on our worst day.”
Bland, along with finalists Thomas Proctor of Southern Nash Middle School and Betsy Hester of Rocky Mount High School, received the Ben Craig Award from Wells Fargo Bank, which included a hand-carved crystal apple and $1,000 to use for classroom supplies. They all also received iPads from Pfizer. In addition, Bland received a free one-year lease on a 2019 Honda CRV from Davenport Autopark and a number of additional gifts and monetary prizes.
Other winners from the April 16 awards ceremony include Principal of the Year Monique Hargrove-Jones of Fairview Elementary School, Assistant Principal of the Year Jenifer Lewis of Winstead Avenue Elementary School and First-Year Teacher of the Year Lindsey Nowell, also from Winstead Avenue Elementary.
Bland said her second-graders feel like winners as well.
“They said since I’m Teacher of the Year, they must be the class of the year, so they want ice cream and a pizza party. I guess I have to find a way to make that happen.”