As part of National Charter Schools Week and Teacher Appreciation Week, Kristen Blair, the Coalition’s communications director, spoke with Ryan Henderson, the 2023 N.C. Charter School Teacher of the Year. The goal: spotlight his innovative work with students and his vision for teaching at one of the state’s oldest, most effective public charter schools. Mr. Henderson teaches TV/Film and Journalism to high school students at Sugar Creek Charter School in Charlotte—a school that seeks to “eradicate generational poverty” by providing a rigorous K-12 education “through academic preparation, college and career readiness and life skills for success.”
You began your career in education as a substitute teacher in New Jersey. What came next and what compelled you to pursue a career as a teacher?
Ryan Henderson: I had no intentions of becoming a schoolteacher. When I got out of college, I was doing freelance television in Philadelphia. I started substitute teaching to supplement that income. People saw that I had a pretty good knack for being in the classroom and influencing young people in a positive way. Once my son was born, I said, ‘Well, I can’t strap him on my hip and take him around Philadelphia and all over the country doing freelance TV productions!’ I knew education was a steady job for me that I could do and be in one place. So, I decided to go back to school and do a post-baccalaureate program to become a teacher. After some time, I got my teaching certificate and became a teacher of TV broadcasting, and I’m glad I did because now I get to utilize what I went to school for.
This is my sixth year down here [at Sugar Creek Charter School]. I ended up at this school, which is over 90% Black students and the rest Hispanic and other ethnic groups. I just feel like when God tells you to move—sometimes you don’t know why—but you make good decisions based on being patient and trying to understand where your journey is going. I’ve been at Sugar Creek ever since and I love what I do.
I took a side step and became a substitute teacher again when we moved down here because there were no TV broadcasting jobs open and that’s what I’m certified in. Eventually, a TV broadcasting job opened up, I applied, and I got the position. I’ve been teaching TV and broadcasting for four years now. My school is for the underprivileged, underserved community. I get more joy in letting somebody know that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. There’s a route you can take that can help you become the best you that you can be. I love that about my job.
What drew you to teach at a public charter school and to Sugar Creek Charter School, specifically?
Ryan Henderson: When I walk up and down these hallways, I see my people. I see an opportunity to help my people. You have a lot of different ethnic groups and races in this country, but how many of us can actually say, ‘I helped my people’? That’s a passion of mine: to help my people—the underserved, underprivileged communities. I look at my own children, and I see my children in these children. That’s what kept me here.
What’s the best part about your work as a high school teacher of TV Broadcasting and Journalism?
Ryan Henderson: I always say this to my colleagues: ‘I have the best job in the building.’ We can talk about anything we want that’s newsworthy and TV-worthy. We get to visit all of the other classes in the school and share it with the community. I have a long reach. My principal, Mr. Young, always tells us that we are the mouthpiece of the school.
Take us behind the scenes of the “Wildcat Daily News.”
Ryan Henderson: It’s exciting. We’re in our second semester so I have a new crew right now. This is our fourth quarter so we’re wrapping things up. We do a lot of the three phases of production: pre-production, production, and post-production. People don’t realize how long it takes to do the things that we do. They see the finished product on the screen. My kids come in and they have a routine. They love it. They come running to my class, they’re so excited.
If there’s a field trip, it’s a requirement that somebody from Wildcat Daily News is on that trip. Sometimes all of us go. So, we have that job of adventure. But my students embrace the hard work because of the results they get out of it. They’re like mini rock stars in our school.
You toured WCNC recently with your students. Why is it important for students to see what’s possible?
Ryan Henderson: You know that old saying, ‘Seeing is believing’? It’s true. Sometimes you have to touch and see what is possible in order to believe it. The fact that we had the opportunity to go on that trip made it real; it made it possible for our students. They had a different outlook on what is possible after that trip. I could see it on their faces. When they came back, they were excited, and they took their job more seriously because they had an example of adults doing the same thing that they were doing.
In January, you were honored as North Carolina’s 2023 Charter School Teacher of the Year. What was that like? What is your goal for this year as you occupy this role?
Ryan Henderson: Just to be picked in my school—main campus and high school—to represent Sugar Creek Charter School was all I needed. That was the highlight of my teaching career in itself. Being recognized by Sugar Creek Charter School warms your heart. The rest of the state? That was great but it was just icing on the cake. The real honor for me was being honored by my own people. That brings tears to my eyes.
As far as my goals are concerned, I’m just going to keep doing what got me to this point. We have a lot of work to do in our communities, and it doesn’t stop because I get recognized. The recognition is wonderful. But the work doesn’t stop. That’s my motivation—because we have so much work to do, and there are always going to be younger people coming up who need help and direction.
Could you share your philosophy of education? You referred to the importance of ‘the five W’s and the H’ in your video interview with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.
Ryan Henderson: If you take that formula—the five Ws and the H [who, what, when, where, why, and how]—and apply it to anything in your life, not just journalism, you can apply it to your daily routine. When you ask those questions, you’re going to make it easier for yourself to make informed decisions. You might not get all of the answers but at least you put it out there, so you have a complete body of work and now you’re better informed on how to move forward. That’s my philosophy on life, not just teaching. If you use that formula in life, you are going to make better decisions.
You mentor teachers who are at the beginning of their careers in education. What is the impetus behind that work?
Ryan Henderson: You don’t always want to go to your supervisor for certain things because you don’t want to seem like you’re incompetent, even though that’s not the intention. It’s always good to have somebody older or who has been in teaching longer than you have to give you guidance. We all need it, no matter what profession we’re in.
We’re dealing with young people. This isn’t a desk job where we’re in a cubicle. You’re dealing with human lives and at the same time you have to carry out lesson plans. So, that’s very complicated and sensitive. You’re a teacher yourself; you’re not a machine. You have your thoughts and feelings about this new profession. So, to have somebody that lets you know you’re not alone, that’s a real benefit. That’s the purpose behind it.
We’re losing a lot of teachers. Let’s just be real about that. They don’t feel protected; they feel overwhelmed. I want to let the younger teachers know that we’re all in this together: ‘If you have questions, ask. You’re not alone.’ This is not an easy job. Sometimes it’s a thankless job. But when you see the results, it can be the best, most rewarding career you’ll ever have.
What is your favorite charter school moment?
Ryan Henderson: Wow. I would say when my students spoke on my behalf. They had rounds for Charter School Teacher of the Year, and as one of the components of the rounds, you had to have students speak on your behalf as well as parents, colleagues, and your principal. I happened to be outside the door when my students were in the cafeteria, and they were all hooked up with headphones and laptops. When they were finished with their session [sharing input for Teacher of the Year], there was a great big roar, like they had just won a championship.
I came in and said, ‘What’s happening?’ They said, ‘Mr. Henderson, we killed that!’ They were speaking about me. So, that right there let me know I’m doing something right. The fact that they felt that strongly about me brought me to tears. That was my best moment.
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