Taylor-Grace White stays open-minded as she teaches students at Durham Public Schools’ first virtual school
By Marie Muir | Photo by John Michael Simpson
Taylor-Grace White takes a break from outlining an English assignment for her high school students at her northeast Durham home to check the clock on her desk. At noon, she’ll run downstairs to relieve her mother-in-law, Elsie White, and Elsie’s sister, Barbara White, from babysitting her son, Brighton, so she can hold him during her lunch period at Ignite! Online Academy, a virtual school that Durham Public Schools created in response to the pandemic.
Taylor-Grace became one of the first teachers at Ignite! last fall. She’s applying her first nine years of teaching experience at City of Medicine Academy – where she was named Durham Public Schools’ Teacher of the Year for 2020-21 – to the new school’s charter and curriculum.
Taylor-Grace’s family role models inspired her to pursue a career in education. She grew up in eastern North Carolina as a transracially adopted daughter whose mom, Hattie Whitfield, ran an at-home child care business. When her eldest sister, Shaunté Bridges, attended N.C. Central University and became a DPS teacher, Taylor-Grace followed suit. Her other older sister, Jameson Whitfield, serves in the Air Force in Texas and is responsible for educating new military personnel. So, it’s no surprise that the mission of NCCU’s School of Education resonated deeply with Taylor-Grace.
“Part of NCCU is dedicated to this idea that your community strengthens you,” she says. “You exist within your community not just as a member, but also as a pillar, and it is your responsibility to help make your community a better place.”
Taylor-Grace built a life in Durham while flying to new heights as an NCCU Eagle. Upon completing a student teaching assignment at Jordan High School, she received an email from Principal Jackie Tobias about an available position at CMA.
Taylor-Grace started her first year teaching English to 18-year-olds at age 21. The beginning was rocky, she admits, but the journey was invaluable. She found ways to connect with students through the literature she assigned. Her favorite books to teach are “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas and “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter” by Erika L. Sánchez. “[Jackie] found the funding for me to be able to purchase those texts,” Taylor-Grace says.
Seven years into the role, Taylor-Grace had hit her stride as a teacher, wife and new mother. Then the pandemic struck, and the unthinkable occurred. The Whites’ firstborn son, Camden, passed away when he was only a few months old. Taylor-Grace says she’ll always carry his memory with her. “I’m going to talk about him every chance I get,” she says.
The support and love she received from family, friends, coworkers and students helped her persevere as she mourned alongside her husband and simultaneously accepted the reality of remote school. When it became clear that the pandemic wasn’t ending anytime soon, Ignite! went from a temporary solution to a permanent school and was officially recognized by the state on July 1.
The online academy serves approximately 1,200 students in grades K-12, and Taylor-Grace is one of five high school teachers. As the sole English instructor, she is responsible for 79 students. On the first day of class, Taylor-Grace asked her students for input on what they are looking for in the school. “We’re literally building it as we go,” she says. Ignite! school counselor Jennifer Harrell compiled student responses such as “being open-minded” and “supporting one another” to create one collective school charter. Its principal, Matthew Hickson, was a DPS Beginning Teacher of the Year during his time at Neal Magnet Middle School and a Durham Principal Leadership Academy Fellow at N.C. State.
Ignite! students learn at their own pace from a blend of Zoom classes and asynchronous work time. For Taylor- Grace, the job is perfect. She can directly apply skills from her master’s degree in literacy and digital instruction from the University of San Diego’s online program, and she can work from home with her newborn. Taylor-Grace is also an advocate at Student U, a nonprofit that empowers first-generation college students, and a curriculum writer and professional development facilitator at the Center for Inquiry-Based Learning.
The perseverance of Taylor-Grace’s students has kept her motivated throughout the COVID-19 chaos. She plans to continue building and nurturing the relationships she’s made with her Ignite! students, “knowing that I can still foster that connection even through Zoom and knowing that they were showing up to our virtual classes and doing their best every day – that made me want to show up and do my best every day, too.”