Former Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry believed in the power of an educator, and he once was quoted as saying: “A good teacher can inspire hope, ignite the imagination and instill a love of learning”
It’s unlikely Henry knew Jean Powell, but no one could have come closer to describing her educational persona than he did with those words. For Powell, longtime Clinton High School English teacher, state Teacher of the Year and founder of the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching, was a consummate professional who loved the written word and easily instilled that love in the hearts, minds and imaginations of her students.
For those who already loved literature, Powell fanned the flames, spreading them deeper and wider as she developed an insatiable thirst in her students; for those lukewarm to the classics, she became the spark that ignited their interest and, if not as passionate as she was for those written words, they at least were open to broadening their experiences and enjoying the journey.
There was just something about Powell that made every student who entered her classroom want to learn, want to grow and want to experience something beyond themselves.
It was her unique brand of teaching coupled with her genuine love for the students she taught (and theirs for her) that earned her the title of North Carolina Teacher of the Year, an honor that residents of Clinton wore as proudly as she did. For as much as Jean Powell was loved by her students, she was equally loved by their parents and the larger Clinton community.
She was a hero around town. Mention her name and people stopped to listen. When she walked in a room, people watched her, many finding a way to be in her presence or to win her favor.
Her popularity only increased when she proposed (and fought hard to get) the creation of NCCAT, a place she believed teachers needed for enrichment and time away to recharge their batteries and take back to their students new and exciting ways to learn.
Although quiet and unassuming, Powell had a presence about her that made people sit up and take notice. In many ways a women’s libber before there was ever such a word, Powell believed in speaking her mind and had no problem fighting for what she believed in — if it was worth having, she believed, it was worth fighting for, and she never had a problem doing so if the cause was right.
Education was one of those causes, and she never stopped being an advocate for what was right for teachers and students.
She was a bright star in the Clinton High School galaxy, a woman of class and substance with a deep love of her students and a passion for teaching.
Powell died last week at the age of 98 and, we are told, was still enjoying a rich and full life.
Like so many who went on before her, in Powell we have lost one of the truly great ones of our time. But her legacy will live on in the family she cherished and in the countless students who are living examples of what she taught them through the years.