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#WhyIChoseEducation: ‘We’re All Part of a Broader Community of Individuals Who Want Our World to be a Better Place Tomorrow Than it is Today,’ Says Carl Harris ’98EDD

Quote graphic with photo of Carl Harris and the quote: We're all part of a broader community of individuals who want our world to be a better place tomorrow than it is today.

As a first-generation college student, Carl Harris’ passion for education began at an early age, when he saw how knowledge could unlock opportunities. Now, as the NC State College of Education’s board chair, he works toward supporting educational growth for others.

Harris, who played Division II basketball while earning his bachelor’s degree at Southwest Minnesota State University, entered the field as a physical education teacher, before soon moving into administration as an assistant principal. 

“The whole power of supporting teachers became a real inspiration for me,” Harris said. 

Over the coming decades, Harris would continue to serve in numerous educational leadership positions in North Carolina, including as superintendent of Durham Public Schools. Throughout his career, he made it his mission to support teachers and students.

“Those kids have dreams and for them to fulfill their dreams they need adults, inspiring adults who can nurture those dreams and equip them with the knowledge to fulfill those dreams,” Harris said.

Every day, Harris said, he saw the impact educators can make.

“We’re all part of a broader community of individuals who want our world to be a better place tomorrow than it is today,” Harris said.

In addition to the experience Harris gained through his career, he also honed his leadership skills at the NC State College of Education, where he earned his Ed.D. in education administration in 1998. 

“There were great professors that had confidence in me as a student, that helped nurture my quest to want to know more about leadership, more about curriculum, more about how to support instruction in a school setting and really to kind of hone in on some of the things that I had already learned through some previous roles,” Harris said.

In 2010, Harris was appointed deputy assistant secretary for policy and strategic initiatives at the U.S. Department of Education. In that role, among other duties, he focused on identifying policies and strategic initiatives that would advance and support education across the country. 

“Every single child has a role in participating in the great society of America, and we need to give every child the skill sets, knowledge and tools to fully participate,” Harris said.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Why I Chose Education:

Education propelled me and because it was doing so much to help me engage in the career opportunities I wanted to be part of. I think, intuitively, it made me think about how to engage in helping someone else do the very same thing. 

There are so many people who have dreams and aspire to do the kinds of things that they envision. But, I quickly figured out that if you’re going to fulfill those dreams, you have to have an understanding of what it takes to get there and what it takes to survive once you’re there. It’s all embedded in a continuous way of educating yourself about what it is you want to do and how you want to go about doing it. 

How Education Has Shaped Me:

Education has always inspired me to be creative in my thinking, to be a visionary thinker about life today and how you prepare for life tomorrow. 

The more I lived, the more I saw how quickly life was changing. You look at how quickly technology changes or just look at how the world becomes smaller every day. We now have tools that can connect us to almost anywhere in the world instantly, and that’s a significant change. If we’re experiencing this today, you start thinking about what it is going to be like tomorrow or the next day.

When I was an elementary school principal in Franklin County, I enjoyed seeing the little five-year-olds come in so inspired about school, because school was this big thing that they had heard about from their families.

As a principal, I saw how excited these young individuals were, and that the role adults would play in those next 12 to 15 years would set the stage for many, many things that they could do throughout their life. 

That, to me, was a very, very impactful way to look at the power of education. In that preparation phase, you give individuals these tools that allow them to make their own choices later on. But without the tools you don’t get to have as many choices, and so you just want to give everyone as many educational tools as you can, so that they get to decide how they want to live their life and how they want to participate in a fast moving society. 

Why I Chose Educational Leadership:

The whole leadership piece is helping people get to where they’re attempting to go. What inspired me as an educator was really to be part of equipping every person with a skill set that allows them to choose whatever inspired them from a career perspective, because that career perspective is about how you participate in making life better for yourself, but also making life better for others. Because we all have individual interests, my role has always been not trying to dictate what a person becomes, but giving them a skill set, so that, regardless of what they decide they want to do with their life, they have a skill set that they can adapt to it. 

As time has moved on, and as we see, today, in education, we have to provide students with an adaptive skill set because we have no idea what careers are going to be available for individuals five years from now, 10 years from now. So many of these careers have not even been created yet. That’s the beauty of living in a progressive society, is that you really don’t know. But you also know that if you have an adaptive skill set that no matter what it’s going to be tomorrow, you know enough today, and you can continue to learn enough tomorrow, that regardless, you’re going to be able to continue your full participation in wherever the world is taking us.

What I Enjoy Most About the College of Education:

I’m part of a greater team of people. One thing that’s constant is that the [NC State College of Education Board] is a team of individuals that are there to support the college, support the dean and support the faculty, and do our very best to be outreach agents to communities beyond the university in a very positive way.

Since I’ve been on the board, I’ve had a chance to meet some remarkable people who are very, very passionate about education and, like me, have experienced the benefits of education. And that benefit of education is now [figuring out] how we can support others to have that same kind of experience.

What Others Should Know About the NC State College of Education:

It’s a college of education that is truly committed to diversity and engaging with all students who aspire to educate themselves at the next level. 

We’re all a product of what we know. In order for us to fully understand something, we have to know about it. I think one of the most powerful roles the college has is the outreach it does throughout the state of North Carolina and beyond, to help students understand what the College of Education is about, what the goals and mission of the college are, and how the college can support them in their educational journey.

That journey starts from the beginning, but it’s a continuous journey, which is why you see so many people graduate at one level but also come back. 

The Last Thing I Experienced That Inspired Me:

I’m continuously inspired when I see people who have a dream, and they work really hard for it, and they get to live it. I hear people talking about, “This is what I want to do in life,” and I see them living it, and I see them living it well. You get to see them live out their dream. There’s no better gratification than to know that you have a role in supporting an individual to do something that’s not only making a difference in the world but is fulfilling their own inner drive to make a difference.