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An inside look at what being North Carolina’s Teacher of the Year is like

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  • “The power of education is immense,” Carper said. “I hope more people, especially young people will understand the importance of it. If you have knowledge, you can do anything."
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Leah Carper, an English teacher at Northern Guilford High School, has spent the past year advocating for free school lunch, school safety, and support for beginning teachers as the 2022 North Carolina Teacher of the Year.

Carper started teaching in 2006, when she won Guilford County Schools’ Rookie Teacher of the Year Award. As an English teacher, she focused on teaching through nontraditional methods, like dancing or painting. She wanted her students to learn empathy and resilience in addition to technical lessons.

But as the N.C. Burroughs Wellcome Fund Teacher of the Year, Carper has been out of the classroom for the past school year. Instead, she’s spent the year traveling across North Carolina, visiting classrooms, speaking at conferences, and going to State Board of Education meetings. She has documented the last year on her TikTok account.

@how_i_teach_high_school You never know what you can accomplish. Keep doing cool things. Keep being you. #teacher #teachertok ♬ No Such Thing

One of Carper’s sponsors is No Kid Hungry, and Carper has been advocating for free school lunches and eliminating school lunch debt to state legislators. She was also able to publish an op-ed about a personal experience she had about the stigma students face regarding free and reduced lunch.

“I hope that one day no student will have to pay for food at school ever,” she said.

She is also passionate about school safety, which she views as the combination of physical, emotional, and academic safety. She’s been working to advocate for more people in school buildings to protect students.

“I’m not trained in creating a physically safe space for children,” she said. “And I’m not trained in mental health safety. If we can have more people in schools that can surround our students and give services in those regards, our students will be more successful.”

Finally, Carper has advocated for more support for beginning teachers.

“We are losing teachers within their first five years at such a rapid pace all across the country, because they are asked to do so much and don’t have the experience and the full tools necessary to accomplish their job,” she said.

One of the ways Carper has been able to advocate for these platforms is by holding conversations with legislators and other people who hold power in the education sphere.

Just last week, Carper worked with the Public School Forum of North Carolina to host North Carolina’s inaugural Bring a Legislator to School Day, where she helped encourage over 60 N.C. legislators to visit public schools.

“They were on buses, they were eating school lunch, they were in classrooms, they were reading books to students, they were walking down hallways.” Carper said. “They were seeing the needs of our buildings, and the needs of our teachers.”

And at a White House Rose Garden ceremony for all the state teachers of the year, Carper had the opportunity to sit down with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden to discuss issues in public schools.

@how_i_teach_high_school Honored to be recognized at the White House for being a State TOY! Every teacher should feel like this. They’re all champions. #teacher ♬ Hall of Fame (feat.

But Carper said her favorite experience has been talking to teachers and principals.

“The thing that makes the most impact on me are the small conversations I’ve had with people,” she said. “That’s what’s most important to me – what can we do to help kids? If I can help be a voice for that, I’m here for it.”

As part of the experience of being a state Teacher of the Year, Carper has toured the Google campus in California, met U.S. Secretary of Education Michael Cardona, and had Gov. Roy Cooper visit her high school.

This summer, she will be traveling to Chile to explore the country’s educational system and bring what she learns to classrooms in North Carolina. It will be her first time outside of the country.

She will also attend a NASA Space Camp in Alabama, participate in a weeklong education workshop at Princeton University, and be honored at the 2024 College Football Playoff National Championship in Houston, Texas.

Carper is especially grateful for these experiences because she did not think growing up that she would be able to have these opportunities. But because of her educational experiences, through community college, a bachelor’s degree in English education from UNC-Greensboro, and a master’s degree in educational leadership from Queens University of Charlotte, she was able to.

“The power of education is immense,” she said. “I hope more people, especially young people will understand the importance of it. If you have knowledge, you can do anything.”

@how_i_teach_high_school Busy and incredible week! #bwfund #nc #teacheroftheyear #teacherlife ♬ original sound – Leah Carper

Her official end date for being North Carolina Teacher of the Year is July 1, but she knows her work will not be done then. She’s also excited to see what Kimberly Jones, the 2023 North Carolina Teacher of the Year from Chapel Hill, will do.

“The thing that keeps me coming back, and the thing that keeps me in a classroom, are the people, the students,” Carper said. “I recognize that the work that I’m doing will benefit them forever.”

Sonia Rao

Sonia Rao is a spring 2023 reporting and engagement fellow for EducationNC.