CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- When Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools honored its teacher of the year Monday, it was easy to see how James Ford could light up a room full of ninth-grade world history students.

The 32-year-old Garinger High teacher radiated excitement about teaching.

I wake up with a smile on my face, knowing I actually enjoy my job, he said.

That s an image Superintendent Heath Morrison said the public needs to see. The event came as state testing begins, and as lawmakers and reformers talk about holding teachers accountable for results.

Morrison urged Ford and five other finalists to tell their stories and reshape the public conversation about teaching: You have an opportunity to let people know the magic you enact every day on behalf of children.

Ford says he initially planned to be a journalist, then got into nonprofit work with teens. When he moved into teaching, his reaction was, Wow, what took me so long?

He came to CMS and Garinger in 2010, seeking a change from his hometown of Rockford, Ill. The eastside high school attracts students from a range of national and ethnic backgrounds. It also has one of the district s highest poverty levels and has struggled with low academic results.

Ford draws on his school s diversity. He talks about how world history has been shaped by different cultures, which can clash violently or enrich one another.

For a lesson on imperialism, he drew grids on the floor and scattered Starburst candies to represent natural resources. When he told students they didn t have to honor the boundaries, he watched them grab for each other s goodies, then used that to talk about what happens on a global scale.

He makes sure students understand that history is about living ideas war, religion, technology not just dead people and dates.

And he tells students they need to know what stereotypes people hold about their school so they can immediately make it your business to break out of it.

Garinger Principal Kondra Rattley and Charity Bell, the zone superintendent who oversees Garinger, say Ford s enthusiasm fires up his students.

The smile tells it all. That really is his personality, Rattley said after the presentation.

Bell said she saw Ford s impact when she went to his classroom to surprise him with the news that he was the zone s teacher of the year.

Even the boys got up and hugged their teacher, Bell said. I have never seen that level of enthusiasm from students before. It s one thing to be able to teach kids, and it s another to be able to reach them.

Finalists were nominated by each of the district s six administrative zones. Other finalists were Lysa Craig of Bailey Middle, Kevin Eudy of Olympic Renaissance School, Ashley Brooke Fulton of University Park Elementary, Bobby Miles of Ranson Middle and Doug Smith of McKee Road Elementary.

As CMS teacher of the year, Ford moves up to the regional competition and gets a year s use of a Volkswagen Jetta, provided by Keffer Volkswagen of Huntersville. And he got hugs from his family wife, Barbara, who works for the Mecklenburg Department of Social Services, and their children, 6-year-old Zahara and 4-year-old Zaddik.

Ford was eager to tell his students they have something else to be proud of.

I love my kids, he said. I can t wait to see them tomorrow.

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