Ferguson-Florissant School District’s first Missouri Teacher of the Year reflects on recognition
A music teacher in the Ferguson-Florissant School District became the first in the district to be named Missouri Teacher of the Year.
The recognition is a full circle moment for James Young, who was a student in the district and now teaches at the Johnson-Wabash 6th Grade Center.
He is also the third African American to receive the honor since its inception in 1957.
Young is set to be honored at this year’s Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education recognition ceremony on Oct. 19.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Marissanne Lewis-Thompson spoke with Young about his role as an educator, teaching during the pandemic and what the recognition means to him after 14 years of teaching.
Marissanne Lewis-Thompson: When you found out that you were selected as the 53rd Missouri Teacher of the Year and the first in the Ferguson-Florissant School District, what went on in your mind?
James Young: It's been such a journey. I was really excited — a little nervous, but also very honored. Because I really feel like this is a large tribute to our community, our schools, students, staff, teachers that work hard, but it's also a legacy. My grandmother retired from [the] Ferguson-Florissant School District, and was my biggest mentor through college and even into my career.
Lewis-Thompson: How did your grandmother shape and influence your love of music and teaching?
Young: I was in the Army for three years. And when I got out, [I] worked some jobs and did some things, but I ended up at her house as sort of a landing for me. And when I went back to school, she just really nurtured me. She really I would say, she helped me take my love for music and my passion for it, but then directed in a way to serve the community. And that was a piece that I was missing. I was young, and, you know, I was wanting fame. And she was like, well, why don't you consider this?
Lewis-Thompson: Teaching isn’t an easy job under normal circumstances. But add on a pandemic to the mix and you’ve got your work cut out for you. How did you manage to successfully teach a music class virtually?
Young: I'll have to give props to my co-teacher at the time, Judy Brown. We were able to work it out together. And so that's always helpful. Teamwork makes the dream work as they say. There are challenges. There's a lag in Zoom. You know, some students didn't want to have their screens on. Or they wouldn't come off mute and actually share their voices. So what we ended up doing, we used an app called Flipgrid. And so we gave them their assignments, and they could record them and send them in. And you would be amazed students that I saw later in person who were shy in person, they came to life on this app.
We also focused more and more on community. And just staying connected. And that importance of letting them know I see you. I'm here for you. We're going to support each other and work through it. And so that's one of the big pieces of what I like to teach. I mean, music is very important. But I know every student is not going to grow up to be a musician, but every student will grow up to have to stand in front of someone at some point, and present themselves in the best light.
Lewis-Thompson: What songs were you teaching your students virtually?
Young: Our theme was African moods. And it was kind of going off the theme of "The Lion King." It was kind of a spinoff of that. So we did sing "Siyahamba," "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," and "He Lives in You." And then with "He Lives in You," it's just such a powerful song because it talks about legacy. And especially with that time in my life being not too far from losing my grandmother, that really had an impact. We didn't plan it that way, but it's just interesting how things kind of line up.
Lewis-Thompson: So that song took on a new meaning to you?
Young: Oh, it did.
Lewis-Thompson: What has this moment in time in particular taught you about yourself as an educator?
Young: It's taught me the importance of that human connection, and building relationships with students. How that's priority, and that's, you know, job No. 1. And then the content comes in and is the outgrowth of those connections in those relationships. It's taught me the importance of not only believing that and feeling that for myself, but teaching students and that gets into more of like the social emotional learning and how important that is. All learning should go beyond the content and into this idea that we're human, and we have very intricate and complex parts to us. And they all have to be reached in order for us to be whole.
Follow Marissanne on Twitter: @Marissanne2011
Correction: This article incorrectly stated Young was the second African American to win the award, based on information from the Ferguson-Florissant School District. He is actually the third African American education to be named Missouri Teacher of the Year.