Justin Seifts, a Spanish teacher at East Chapel Hill High School, was recently awarded the 2022 Reckford Teaching Prize.
Seifts was born in South Korea and was adopted in the U.S. when he was 4 months old. He said his identity as Asian American has greatly affected his career.
“Even going through college, there really aren’t Asians or Asian Americans going into education, and very few going in to teach Spanish,” he said. “I wish that were different, and I think students seeing that — maybe it opens the door to new possibilities.”
Statewide, there is a shortage of teachers of color.
Although a significant population of the students at East Chapel Hill High School are Asian, Seifts said many of them have never been taught by an Asian teacher before.
As of fall 2021, East Chapel Hill High School’s faculty population was 80 percent white, 13 percent Black, 4 percent Latinx, 0 percent Asian and 3 percent multiracial.
Comparatively, the student population is 50 percent white, 10 percent Black, 12 percent Latinx, 20 percent Asian and 7 percent multiracial, according to Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools data.
Data also shows that throughout CHCCS as a whole, 72 percent of the faculty is white, 16 percent Black, 7 percent Latinx, 3 percent Asian and 2 percent multiracial.
Comparatively, the student population is 49.6 percent white, 11.7 percent Black, 18.1 percent Latinx, 13.2 percent Asian and 7.4 percent multiracial.
The prize was established in 2018 with the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Public School Foundation by Joseph and Xiaomei Reckford, according to a press release from CHCCS Chief Communications Officer Andy Jenks. The award is granted annually to a teacher in the district who has inspired students.
Joseph Reckford said in an email to The Daily Tar Heel that he and his wife created the travel prize to express their appreciation to the "few truly superior" teachers who taught their daughter.
"I believe admiration of great teaching is universal, but demonstrated appreciation of teachers is too rare," Joseph wrote. "In addition to giving one teacher each year an exceptional opportunity for travel and professional growth, we hope to raise morale among the faculty, generally. We would be pleased if our example encourages others to create additional awards for teachers."
The selected teacher is awarded a $2,000 grant to use toward opportunities in travel, study or enriching experiences.
Seifts said he doesn't yet know what he will do with the award, but that he will likely use it to attend conferences and professional development.
Madeline Blobe, executive director for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Public School Foundation, said she believes Seifts embodies the spirit of the award.
“One of the things we’re looking for is a teacher that can really engage all students, no matter their background or interest,” she said.
Blobe said the award was announced as a surprise at a virtual school staff meeting. The foundation also visited Seifts in his classroom to present his plaque.
“When we asked if there were any students that wanted to comment, every hand in that classroom went up,” she said. “That means every student in his classroom feels welcome and feels safe. Ultimately, that is what this award is about.”
Seifts is an alumnus of CHCCS. He said that in college, he discovered an interest in Spanish education and began teaching at Walter M. Williams High School in Burlington in 2009. He started teaching at East Chapel Hill High School in 2012.
“It’s particularly special to have gone through the school system and now be able to teach in the school system,” he said.
Seifts is an adviser for different clubs and leadership committees, including the College Board committee to improve AP World Language access and achievement, and the Advisory Board for the Spanish Education Committee at Elon University.
Creating an environment where students feel comfortable and safe to express themselves is first and foremost, Seifts said.
Seifts said that in his teaching, he holds his students to high expectations, finds opportunities to challenge them and shows them they can succeed.
When he won the award, Seifts said, he was overwhelmed, speechless and in awe.
"I literally could not believe it,” he said. “Even now, it’s hard for me to find words to express how honored and grateful I am.”
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