Many future educators grow up knowing they absolutely, definitely, 100 percent want to teach. They practice fake lessons on their siblings. They daydream about decorating their own class bulletin boards.

Not James Ford ’03. As a student at Illinois State University, the mass communication major was training to become a journalist, writing for The Vidette and even starting his own newsletter for black readers.

Ford didn’t decide to become a teacher until years later, but that turned out to be a pretty good decision: Earlier this month he was named North Carolina’s Teacher of the Year, a remarkable achievement that punctuates Ford’s anything-but-straight path to the classroom. He joins a growing list of Illinois State alumni who’ve been named statewide Teachers of the Year in recent years.

“It’s an honor to have an audience of kids looking to you each day for important information that’s relevant to their lives,” said Ford, who teaches world history at Garinger High School in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Teachers are world-changers, cycle-breakers, and nation-builders.”

After Illinois State, the Rockford native began his career working for nonprofits, first as a truancy intervention specialist and then as director of an after-school program for at-risk youths. Ford loved building meaningful relationships with young people, but wanted a more stable career.

So he went back to school to become a teacher, graduating then-Rockford College in 2009 with his master’s degree. He taught for one year in Rockford and has been pursuing his passion in North Carolina ever since.

James Ford Headshot

James Ford was a mass communication major at Illinois State.

Ford, who minored in sociology at Illinois State, enjoys teaching world history at Garinger High because “it’s a content area that lets you teach everything, because everything is world history.” It’s also a freshman-level class, giving Ford the opportunity to “break in” the new students—one of his passions—and demonstrate early on why high school is important to them.

“I find ways to make connections between the content and their lives,” Ford said.

State education leader

As the 2014 Burroughs Wellcome Fund North Carolina Teacher of the Year, Ford will spend the next school year traveling as an ambassador for more than 95,000 teachers in the state.

“We are very proud of James Ford and his achievements, which illustrate why great teaching matters so much,” Heath E. Morrison, superintendent of Ford’s district, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, said in a statement. “I am inspired by James’ passion, which is evident each time I visit his classroom and see him with his students. James is changing lives every day at Garinger through his teaching.”

Ford is only the latest Redbird to be named a state’s top educator or a finalist for the honor. The reigning Teachers of the Year in Iowa (Jane Schmidt ’76), Hawaii (Matthew Lawrence ’00), and Idaho (Jamie Esler ’07) are all Illinois State grads, in addition to winners from past years.

While he didn’t graduate from Illinois State’s nationally known teacher education program, Ford said his time in Normal dramatically shaped his future career. His major and professors showed him how to communicate to all sorts of audiences, and his journalism background taught him how to write well quickly and efficiently.

Those are highly transferable skills, he said.

“It empowered me to really do just about whatever I wanted to do, and to do it well. I chose teaching,” Ford said. “The courses, the teachers I had, they opened my eyes to a world I didn’t know existed.”

Ford came to Illinois State, in part, because his sister was already a student here (and student body president). Ford initially struggled when he first arrived on campus, but he matured with help from leadership roles in student organizations such as the Black Student Union.

Ford came to ISU “as a boy but left as a man,” as he puts it.

“I really made the best of the outside-of-class experiences available to me,” Ford told STATEside. “It was the right fit for me. I loved ISU. I loved every minute of it.”

Tommy Navickas contributed to this story.

Ryan Denham can be reached at