Sierra McNeill came to The New Century School fresh from Charlotte, NC to take over the 6th- through 8th-grade homeroom and instruct TNCS students in grades 4–8 in English Language Arts (ELA). She is originally from Fort Bragg, NC, near Fayetteville, and, until now, had lived in North Carolina all her life. Why Baltimore? Ms. McNeill said she was really just looking for “a change of scenery.” Fayetteville had the small-town feel, and Charlotte was an up and coming small city. Baltimore was a good next step up because she wanted to get a little farther north (bit not too far north with colder weather) and because her best friend has lived here for the past 7 years. When Ms McNeill would visit over the years, she developed a fondness for good old Charm City and moved here April 1, 2022! She also appreciates the proximity to Washington, D.C., but feels it’s a little too fast-paced for her.
Even though Baltimore feels “just right,” moving here has still required some adjustments. One of the biggest has been not being as close to her family (see photos), who she is extremely close to. “It was definitely a transition,” she said. “I’m coming from southern roots, and we are all about hospitality—everyone is your neighbor—and it’s not really like that here.” Well, maybe not in Baltimore at large, but TNCS has been a saving grace. “TNCS has been great. I was nervous about coming into this environment as a new teacher, but everyone was very receptive, including the students,” she explained.
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Ms. McNeill graduated from Fayetteville State University (FSU) in with a bachelors of arts in English language and literature. She was also a cheerleader there all 4 years—Go Broncos! She had planned to use her degree as a stepping stone: “Teaching wasn’t my first go-to plan. I just knew l going to be a lawyer or a celebrity stylist (I love fashion).
But the way life works is never how you imagine it. So I moved to Charlotte after being administrative assistant in a health care office, and my friends encouraged me to consider teaching there.”
She initially rejected the idea due in part to the enormous responsibility involved in educating children. Quickly realizing that having that very understanding is exactly what we need in teachers, she went for it. “I interviewed and jumped in mid year in a 3rd-grade classroom after their teacher left.” She didn’t feel grade 3 was quite right for her and sought a classroom with older children. She accepted a position as 5th-grade teacher at another school, where she taught for 2 years. And then it happened: she began teaching ELA and reading to 6th-graders, “and the rest is history,” as she puts it. Middle school is her jam! In fact, she taught 7th- and 8th-grade briefly at a Baltimore public school when she first arrived here. “It didn’t quite feel like home,” she explains, “coming from the school in Charlotte, which was very close knit, very family oriented. This school didn’t give me that community aspect. So I started looking again and came across TNCS. I spoke with Ms. Johnson and the previous interim head of school, and I felt really good from the jump.”
Sierra McNeil at TNCS
At Orientation Day for the 2022–2023 school year in late August, it was clear that Ms. McNeill was excited for what was coming. Her enthusiasm for teaching–and teaching ELA—is obvious.
I feel like every teacher has their unique ‘teacher swag’ in the way they approach things. I’m very calm spirited, although I am also energetic and bubbly. Being a younger teacher, I try to be ‘chill’ so I can connect with the kids in what’s happening in their society and their day-to-day. I’m a music and sports person, so I can connect with them on that level, too.
“I try to make everything relatable and to emphasize that real-life perspective in all subjects but especially in what we’re reading,” explained Ms. McNeill. “I try to make sure they can find things they enjoy reading. So, I take what is necessary for them to learn in the curriculum and somehow tie it into reality so it’s full circle to make it really click for them.”
In Quarter 1, grades 4–6 read Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson, and 7th- and 8th-graders read Lois Lowry’s The Giver. Age-appropriate themes galore in those two novels!
Next up is an 8th-grade “novel study” focusing on Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer and breaking out into small-group discussions about this gem of a book. Also, new this school year, in 8th-grade seminar, 8th-graders will be reading William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and discussing that must-read with Head of School Erika Johnson in depth. This seminar, by the way, will also include high-school prep, what’s expected of them as leaders of the school, and other topics specific to this age group. “It’s nice that they get their own personal time, despite the class being mixed ages, to really hone in on what they need to accomplish before the end of the school year.” said Ms. McNeill. “I think it’s very cool that Ms. Johnson recognized this need and made it happen. I think it’s going to be beneficial this year and hopefully for years to come.”
Her fondness for teaching reading notwithstanding, Ms. McNeill’s true passion is teaching writing. “I like seeing kids gain confidence once they figure out the formula—how writing is just taking your thoughts and laying them out.” Her students actually just started this writing unit this week, and Ms. McNeill has done all she could to get them excited for it. She is a sworn journal-er, sometimes writing from a script—the goals for the day and which of those were achieved—sometimes just cataloguing her day. “I try to instill that in the students, too. We do ‘Daily Writes,” where I give them a prompt. But I other than asking that they write in complete sentences, we keep it informal.” She explains that these exercises help get her students into the habit of writing paragraphs, so that when it comes time to write actual essays, they are prepared. She also strives to engage them by giving these prompts as hooks that will reel them in, which is great practice for getting them to think through their topics and how they will write about them.
“It’s Very Different—A Good Different!”
Now that Ms McNeill has been at TNCS for a couple of months, she is finding her groove. Mixed-age classrooms are both new and not so new to her. Although she had never taught in one until now, she did attend Montessori school (Cumberland Road Elementary) for a couple of her elementary years. “Although it’s different, it’s a good different,” she said. “It exposes ids to different different aspects, different maturity levels. It has been challenging, but once I sat with Ms. Johnson and talked about expectations, it kind of just started to flow. I had already taught with differentiation—teaching different ways to different learning styles and diversifying lessons for different learning abilities. So I was able to tie my experience in here at TNCS.”
Despite two huge life changes, relocating to a new city plus accepting a position new to her in many ways, Ms. McNeill is certainly finding her way. She is a vegetarian and a foodie and appreciates the many restaurant options Baltimore offers. She enjoys strolling around downtown, the Inner Harbor, Fell’s Point, and along Howard Row‘s Black-owned businesses in particular. She likes reading and going to the movies. What she would really enjoy, though, is getting to know the TNCS community better. “I’m very family-oriented,” she said emphatically, “if there’s any family-inspired event going on, invite me. I’m looking for different things to engage in in the community, so if your kids play sports outside of school, I’ll show up and support!” She is also very excited for upcoming school events like Hispanic Heritage Nights and the Winter Concert—she can’t wait to join the festivities and immerse herself in and be welcomed by the TNCS community!