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Teacher of the Year finalist Alice Graham at home at Concord Middle
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Teacher of the Year finalist Alice Graham at home at Concord Middle

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CONCORD — Concord Middle School is home to Alice Graham in more ways than one.

Graham grew up in the Logan Community and graduated from both Concord Middle and Concord High School. She understands the community because she is part of it.

That is why in just her second year at the school she was named Teacher of the Year and is now one of six finalists for the district-wide award.

More than 30 years ago, Graham was a student who would walk to the library in Concord during the summer and on weekends to read. Now she is striving every day to help children succeed as she has.

Coming Home

Graham was raised by her grandparents in the Logan Community and spent all of her grade school years in Cabarrus County attending Coltrane Webb and R. Brown McAllister Elementary Schools before eventually moving on to Concord Middle and High School.

Growing up in the Logan Community she started to develop a love of reading from a young age, but it was when she ran into a couple of pretty famous names in the district that it truly became her passion.

“I’ve always been a lover of learning so in elementary school in kindergarten I had Mrs. Wall — Mary Frances Wall as my kindergarten teacher — and Ms. Boger was our teacher assistant,” she said. “They saw my love for reading and learning and they just encouraged it and praised me, gave me books to read, so I just loved reading and I loved learning.”

Reading became a kind of escape for Graham when she was younger. She lived in a house with her grandparents as well as her cousins. A house of seven can be overwhelming at times, and she found she needed an escape.

She found that escape in books at the local library.

“Growing up things were hard,” she said. “We lived in poverty and so (there were) day-to-day struggles of living in poverty, but my grandparents were wonderful. They provided me with what I needed. My grandfather worked very hard to support us because they actually raised five of the grandchildren. I grew up in the home with my cousins and we were all raised as brothers and sisters. (I had) lots of community support. Like I said I grew up in the Logan community and my neighbors knew how much I loved reading, loved school, and I did well in school so the community really supported me in that. Very encouraging. So I saw education as a way to improve my life and improve the life for my kids.”

She turned that passion for reading into a career. She went on to college at UNC Charlotte and became an E.L.A. (English Language Arts) Interventionist specializing in helping students who are behind in reading catch up.

Liz Snyder is the principal at Concord Middle, and she couldn’t be happier with the work Graham does at the school.

“Alice Graham is jack of all trades, master of all. She truly is,” she said. “When you think of — and you hear this in education all the time — you hear ‘closing the gap,’ Alice Graham closes the gap. And that’s the easiest way I can sum her up. You have core teachers who are working diligently in their classrooms and she takes the most academic, at-risk kids from the teachers and says, ‘Let me have them for a little bit, and let me work on catching them up and closing the gap’ and that’s what she does so beautifully.”

A circuitous route

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Graham has treated every single job she has had as an opportunity to give students the same opportunities she had, but it took her a while to officially come home.

Out of college she did come right back to work in CCS, starting her career at Bethel Elementary. But over the next 26 years she spent time in Kannapolis City Schools, Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools and eventually moved down to Winecoff Elementary. She loved all she did with all of these jobs, but she hadn’t quite made it home yet.

That was until a friend of hers was urging her to apply to work at Concord Middle. Graham said she loved working at Winecoff as a second-grade teacher where she was at the time and the only reason she would leave is if Concord had an interventionist job available.

An interventionist job posted practically during their conversation.

So Graham made her way home and has been working with Concord for the last two years and is now a Teacher of the Year finalist. This is the second straight year Concord Middle has had a finalist. Kate Clardy was one of five finalists last year.

Graham belongs at Concord not just because she is a great teacher like Clardy, but because she knows this community and wants what is best for its people.

“This is exactly the place for me,” she said. “I love it. I love what I do, I love working with middle schoolers, I love watching them grow, teaching them to become proficient readers and teaching them to love reading. You’ve got to have that love of reading, it’s something that’s so in me, I want everyone to have that love of reading. That’s just an amazing thing to have.”

Concord Middle is classified as a high-needs school and some of the students need a good amount of help. Graham is able to give it.

She wants children to share that love for reading she has, and she knows they can get it at a school that has such amazing teachers. She would hope to pass on some of her love for teaching and learning to the entire district if she did happen to win.

“It would be an opportunity to represent the students, because I was a student at Concord, I have walked in these students’ shoes,” she said. “To represent them and be a voice for them and for the community that I grew up in because my community, where my family lives, feeds into this school. I have nieces and nephews here. I have family here. When I look into the eyes of these students I see myself. And to be a voice for them and to be a voice for this staff who supports them so much would be wonderful.”

The hope to inspire

Alice Graham knows the experience of a student at Concord Middle. She knows where the parents are and what the nature of the community is. Her experiences have driven her to be a better teacher and have taken her back home to be an educator herself.

Even though she has only been at Concord Middle for two years, her experience and presence are invaluable to the faculty.

“She’s going to do whatever it takes to make kids feel welcome, to make them excited about being in school and while they’re here not honing in on whatever their academic struggle might be but honing in on, ‘How can I help you surpass that academic struggle and get to where you want to be?’ And she totally does that in such a beautiful way,” Snyder said.

She works to help students because she knows where they’re coming from and she knows what they can accomplish. She will never stop working every single day to give every student at Concord Middle a chance to succeed.

“My goal as a teacher in any environment is to help kids reach their maximum potential,” she said. “That’s my mentality when I walk into this building every day. It’s to help kids reach their maximum potential, whether it’s in person, whether it’s virtual, I want you to be the absolute very best that you can be and do the very best that you can do.”

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“It’s 13 years worth of work for these kids and so I think that taking the opportunity to celebrate them and all their individual paths is what we have to do. And so I’m glad that they took the opportunity this morning. I’m glad to see so many parents and as I’m looking at all of them now, they’re smiling, they’re happy, this is what life’s supposed to be.”

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