By many accounts, middle school language arts teacher Jessie Grinnell is a bit of an eccentric educator.
She wore a homemade Batman costume to school for Halloween this year. When students disrupt her class, she moves them to “private offices,” which are really just desks that face a wall.
And when she won Culbreth Middle School’s teacher of the year, she ran around the school and high-fived everyone she could find.
“She is always exactly who she is. She is one of the most authentic people I know, and she is no different in her classroom,” said principal Beverly Rudolph. “And her students respect that and also love her for her quirkiness.”
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But talk to Grinnell about the achievement gap or power and privilege and that goofy persona quickly gives way to a passion for equality.
“Sometimes it’s hard to bite my tongue when I hear teachers complaining,” said Grinnell, 37. “I just really wish that everybody could be aware that there are kids really struggling in places that don’t have the same resources.”
Colleagues, parents, students and superiors say that blend of approachability and integrity earned Grinnell the distinction of the Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools District Teacher of the Year award.
“She’s quirky and funny, but she’s also not going to hold back,” said social studies teacher Billy Giblin, who works on the same academic team as Grinnell. “She’ll call you on your stuff.”
Race and privilege
Grinnell frequently organizes events around equity issues and recently planned a family-style dinner in which the school’s African-American parent group met with the school improvement team as well as PTSA members.
“She makes a habit of taking her white-privilege glasses off to examine how it is affecting her, her students, our school, and our community,” Rudolph said.
Michael Jones, a Culbreth teacher who won the district’s teacher of the year award last year, said the meeting “created courageous conversations about race relations in our lives and in the district.”
Science teacher Rachel Hopler said Grinnell also organizes professional development programs around race and privilege.
At one recent meeting, the staff looked at anonymous student surveys about race and the school climate at Culbreth.
“As staff members, it is easy for us to believe that everyone is family here, but when we looked at what the students said, we saw divisiveness,” Hopler said. “We saw white privilege, ignorance, isolation and loneliness.”
Grinnell models the advice she shares with others, Hopler said, pointing to how Grinnell interacts with kids that others might label troublemakers.
“Jesse is great about approaching these students with an open heart and giving them a clean slate, while still remaining fair,” said Hopler.
In class Tuesday afternoon, Grinnell separated two eighth-grade students from their work groups when they distracted others from a lesson on themes in literature.
Even after she moved them to their “private offices,” Grinnell stopped by their desks to work one-on-one with the students, encouraging one as he struggled through S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders.”
Giblin said Grinnell does a great job connecting with students, holding them to high standards and communicating to them that she’s not going to give up on them.
He described one student who has struggled for much of this year. This student “had a really tough outer shell and didn’t appear to want much help,” he said.
But through joking with this student in the hallway and telling the student things like “I know you can do this,” Giblin said Grinnell was able to break through the student’s walls.
“From the beginning of the year, she’s made inroads with this student whereas teachers in the past might not have been able to,” he said. “And the student knows that she cares. Students aren’t going to perform to their potential if they believe the teacher doesn’t care about them.”
Grinnell, who previously worked as a mortgage closer, said she wasn’t always aware of the profound impact race and socio-economic class could have on students. But her perspective changed after her first year as a teacher.
She received her teaching certification in Middle Grades Language Arts from UNC-Wilmington and began teaching at a Charlotte middle school where 75 and 79 percent of the students scored below proficiency on end-of-grade reading and math tests, respectively, according to state data.
“I saw students who were illiterate from high-poverty places and a lot of those students felt like they didn’t have a chance for a successful future,” she said. “It was really alarming because I hadn’t really seen poverty in the U.S. the way I did my first year in Charlotte.”
Grinnell said it was there that she became really passionate about equity in schools. She also said she learned from veteran teachers how to relate to students and build relationships.
“They helped me see that teaching is more than a grade; it’s about building relationships,” she said.
After a year, Grinnell said she left because she didn’t feel emotionally or psychologically prepared to meet her students’ needs.
She still feels guilty, adding that she hopes “one day I can go back to a school with such needs as that school.”
Grinnell’s passion for equity continued when she relocated to Chapel Hill to take a job at Culbreth Middle School.
Earlier this spring, she told her students to select a book to read for a class project. When eighth-grader Brynn Holt-Ling shared the book she’d picked, Grinnell suggested that she pick another.
“Ms. Grinnell told her that selection was below the level she should be reading and suggested a much more intense and complex book, one that I had read and felt might be too much for her,” said Brynn’s mom, Selden Holt.
Grinnell suggested “The Kite Runner,” a book about two friends who grow up in Kabul together, with one later murdered by the Taliban.
As she monitored her daughter’s progress throughout the project, Holt said she “was struck by the level of analysis coming out of my child.”
Brynn acknowledged that the book was “very sad” and made her cry. But she said Grinnell’s assignment “made students look into the deeper meaning of a story.”
Grinnell said she’s honored to receive the district’s teacher of the year distinction and added that she “felt peaceful” when her name was called.
“I pick on myself for the things that I haven’t mastered in teaching,” she said. “So to have this shows that I am doing something right.”
The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools also announced this year’s two Honor Teachers: Lisa French of Carrboro High and Jared Mann of Phoenix Academy High.
Individual school teachers of the year were also recognized Brandy Hutchens, Carrboro Elementary; Kaitlin Baird, Ephesus Elementary; Claire Rizzo, Estes Hills Elementary; Denise Feliz, FPG Bilingüe; Robin Franklin, Glenwood Elementary; Hope Kilgo, McDougle Elementary; Amy Brazaski, Morris Grove Elementary; Deandra Hill, Northside Elementary; Craig Walker, Rashkis Elementary; Jeanette Dixon, Scroggs Elementary; Shanice Harrington, Seawell Elementary; Kate Parrent, McDougle Middle; Ann Daaleman, Phillips Middle; April Ferguson, Smith Middle; Randy Trumbower, Chapel Hill High; and Beth Watson, East Chapel Hill High.