A PROJECT OF RURAL SCHOOLS COLLABORATIVE & NREA

Tiffany Phillips - Grimesland, NC

How Rural Educators Become Community Leaders

June 28, 2023 |
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Many rural residents strive to create a positive impact in their community, empowering the next generation of local leadership. To this aim, a lot of folks discover teaching as the avenue to do just that. Tiffany Phillips is entering her eighth year of teaching at G.R. Whitfield, a K-8 school in Grimesland, NC. A North Carolina Teacher of the Year, Tiffany shared with us about her choice to become a teacher, and how her role fits into the greater community.

Tiffany was born and raised in Greenville, just 10 miles from Grimesland, and says that "North Carolina is truly home":

"I have been here all of my life. I attended Pitt County schools and even attended East Carolina University after graduating from high school. I would like to venture to another area at some point in my life, but I may find it hard to leave."

East Carolina University’s Rural Education Institute anchors Rural Schools Collaborative’s Southeast Hub, and it’s no surprise that an incredible teacher like Tiffany is an alum.

George Roscoe Whitfield

As a longtime resident, Tiffany also shared a little about her school’s history in its region:

"G.R. Whitfield has a pretty cool history! It was founded by George Roscoe Whitfield and was formerly known as Pitt County Training School. It was the only high school in Pitt County for black students. The school had dormitories that were built in 1923 and in the 1960's the school was desegregated. The school was renamed G.R. Whitfield in 1967. I know of some former students that attended the high school before it was desegregated and being able to hear their stories was super cool! [Now] all groups are essentially represented at G.R. Whitfield."

Tiffany explains that teaching has helped her find her voice, and she really feels empowered to create a positive impact in her community through her work with students:

"I would describe myself as someone who is constantly reflecting on how to make things better, an avid reader, someone who researches and likes to try new things inside and outside of the classroom, and someone who is big on building positive/nurturing relationships within my profession. I am the most introverted person there is, but when I am teaching I am the most extroverted person there is. Inside the classroom I come alive and I am passionate about delivering engaging lessons to my students."

“I wish I knew before becoming a teacher that I will have countless opportunities to make a difference. There is always someone that may look up to you and there is always a chance to make a positive impact on someone else.”

Tiffany also shares that her school is well-known in the area for how it successfully builds those positive relationships among students, faculty, staff, and community:

“[G.R. Whitfield] is a small school compared to other schools in Pitt County. It has been referred to as the ‘hidden gem’ of Grimesland. It is a school that is very close knit and just an all around nice and inviting place to be that fosters a positive community relationship.”

“Every year, I cherish the memories of the relationships I have built with my students and families… Not just a phone call for negative incidents, but positive things happening in our classroom as well. I also like to have parents come in and volunteer, whether it be through a field trip, coming to our class to help out with small events we have, or just volunteering in general, it makes parents and families feel as though they are a part of our classroom, too.”

Students decked out in ECU gear

These relationships are critical because, like many rural schools, G.R. Whitfield is a hub of community activities:

“Grimesland is very small, so [the school] is a very important part of the community - From the events that take place throughout the year to the support staff and teachers being a positive resource for families when and as needed. The events that take place are Title 1 events and they can be very resourceful for parents in terms of curriculum and instruction and engaging for the students with activities and resources that connect and help with school/home life.”

Tiffany is hesitant to use the phrase “community leader” for herself, but explains how she is actively working to create a positive impact as a teacher-leader:

“I just recently completed and graduated from a program through Pitt County Schools called Teacher Leadership Institute. It is a program that takes two years to complete and develops leaders outside of the classroom. I am hoping that with my completion and amazing learning opportunities that I gained through the program, I am able to put those skills to use and lead in the community. It is so important to have a positive relationship/partnership between school and community. You see amazing things happen when that is in place.”

Recognition of Tiffany's completion of the Teacher Leadership Institute program

A lot of teachers find education as their calling from an early age, but Tiffany found her passion later in life:

“Teaching was not actually on my radar as a career path. After graduating high school, I wanted to work in the field of Criminal Justice. As I completed my college courses, I thought that I wanted to go to law school and continue on that path. After completing my internship, I decided that was not the path that I wanted to take. I didn't have much luck finding a job in the criminal justice field, so I began to substitute teach. It was a rewarding experience and I decided to go back to school to get my masters in elementary education. From there, the rest is history!”

For Tiffany, the most exciting and rewarding experiences in the classroom are when she has the opportunity to teach mathematics:

“I don't necessarily have a favorite lesson to teach, but I do love to teach the subject area of math the most. It is such a fun subject to teach, especially when you see light bulbs go off in students when they begin to understand and master concepts. I also just got accepted into East Carolina University's MAEd in Mathematics Education Program, so I am super excited to deepen my knowledge of elementary mathematics to improve my instructional practice and lead outside of the classroom.”

“I am the most introverted person there is, but when I am teaching I am the most extroverted person there is. Inside the classroom I come alive and I am passionate about delivering engaging lessons to my students.”

For her outstanding work as an educator, Tiffany was named a North Carolina Teacher of the Year for the 2021-2022 school year. She shares how this honor helped her feel even more empowered to lead her classroom and her community:

“Becoming Teacher of the Year for my school…will also always be a favorite memory of mine. It made me realize that the things that I don't see in myself, others do, so I need to stop being so hard on myself and be more confident in myself as a teacher and leader.”

She left readers, especially those interested in teaching, with the following advice:

“I wish I knew before becoming a teacher that I will have countless opportunities to make a difference. Knowing this, I need to be intentional about my day and my interactions with my students, their families, and with my colleagues. There is always someone that may look up to you and there is always a chance to make a positive impact on someone else.”

“Build and foster positive relationships every year with students, parents, families, colleagues, the community, etc. It is the best thing that you could possibly do to have a successful year. Also, ask for help if you know that you need it. I know that a lot of times we don't want to be a burden on others, or our pride may get in the way, but it can make or break you. Lastly, advocate for what is needed. Don't be afraid to speak up for yourself, your students, and your school."

“I am a rural teacher.”

We are grateful to Tiffany for sharing her time with us to speak about her experiences as a rural teacher in North Carolina. Thank you to our Southeast Regional Hub partners at East Carolina University for connecting us with Tiffany to talk more about how she discovered her love of teaching and how she creates a positive impact in her community.

Bulletin in Tiffany's classroom


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