Skip to content

EdNC. Essential education news. Important stories. Your voice.

NC Teacher of the Year finalists announced. ‘Teachers are society’s safety net,’ says one

Voiced by Amazon Polly

Editor’s Note: This is based on a press release from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

Nine North Carolina educators have been named regional Teachers of the Year in recognition of their outstanding leadership and excellence in teaching, according to this press release.

Since 2013, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI) has partnered with the Burroughs Wellcome Fund to honor North Carolina teachers. The state has recognized outstanding teachers through its Teacher of the Year program since 1970.

“These nine educators are just a sampling of the incredible talent we’re lucky to have in North Carolina public schools,” said state Superintendent Catherine Truitt. “They represent excellence across disciplines, from core subjects to career and technical education to the arts. I commend each of them for their dedication to getting students excited about learning, and I can’t wait to see what this cohort accomplishes together on behalf of students in the year ahead.”

The mission of the North Carolina Teacher of the Year Program is to promote the profession through advocacy and support while recognizing outstanding teaching professionals who are implementing best practices in classrooms across North Carolina.

Northeast | Anita Rubino-Thomas, Currituck County High School, Currituck County Schools

Courtesy of N.C. DPI

A 22-year veteran teacher, Rubino-Thomas is passionate about fostering community and school partnerships. She is a visual arts and AP capstone instructor, varsity cross country coach, academically and intellectually gifted education coordinator, and a 2022-23 Kenan Fellows Program participant.

If selected as N.C. Teacher of the Year, she hopes to build bridges by creating professional development communities for teachers; forging partnerships with colleges, universities and apprenticeship programs; and connecting industry professionals and organizations with schools and students.

“There is a disconnect between our educational institutions and communities that inhibits the growth of opportunities and skill development essential for our youth to become integral members of our North Carolina communities,” Rubino-Thomas said. “Now is the time to forge greater community partnerships with professionals, community groups, and organizations in our regions that offer opportunities for our students that utilize technology and resources that will keep our talent within NC.”

Southeast | Nardi Routten, Creekside Elementary School, Craven County Schools

Courtesy of N.C. DPI

Routten, a fourth-grade teacher with 25 years of experience, believes that building relationships is the key to student success. She said students from all backgrounds, cultures, and zip codes deserve highly qualified, engaging teachers — so that’s what she aims to be.

“I believe in using data and continuous improvement cycles to enhance student learning, making my classroom student-centered,” she said. “I strive to be that teacher who does not give up on a student, that teacher who sees potential in all students and uses various strategies to tap into that potential to help my students do or become what they never thought possible.”

Routten supports other educators as a member of her school’s leadership improvement team and as a teacher advisor to the Craven County Board of Education. She also has a blog where she posts about pedagogical best practices. Her schoolwide “Math Detectives” project engages students in discovering creative solutions to hands-on math problems.

North Central | Rachel Brackney, SouthWest Edgecombe High School, Edgecombe County Public Schools

Brackney, a high school math teacher, has a simple platform for North Carolina Teacher of the Year: “Lead with Love.”

“When students feel valued, supported and understood, they are more likely to engage actively in their learning and take risks in the classroom,” she said. “In addition to fostering a loving environment, I strongly advocate for promoting a growth mindset among my students. Intelligence and abilities are not fixed traits but ones that can be developed and enhanced through effort, perseverance, and a positive attitude. The best way to accomplish this is by embracing failure as an essential part of the learning process.”

Among the highlights of her eight years of teaching, Brackney lists her role as director of SouthWest Edgecombe’s POWER (Plan, Organize, Work, Engage, Relax) initiative, which gives students time during the school day for clubs, tutoring, and other activities. She serves as a leader for the school’s multi-tiered system of support and a member of the school improvement team.

Sandhills | Jennifer Blake, Carthage Elementary School, Moore County Schools

Courtesy of N.C. DPI

Blake, a third-grade teacher with 19 years of experience, encourages her students to be like bumblebees — who shouldn’t be able to fly based on the laws of aerodynamics but do so anyway.

“As a class family we are going to fly just like bumblebees,” she tells her students each year. “We will fly regardless of past weights that we carry, failures, negative thoughts, or past and present challenges. Each day we will come to school ready to beat the odds and fly.”

Blake spends her time after the bell rings researching ways to help her students face those challenges while doing other behind-the-scenes tasks – mentoring new staff members, co-chairing the School Improvement Team, and running the school’s ClassDOJO software, to name a few. She wants to shine a light on all the additional work that goes into being a teacher outside the seven hours a day spent in front of the classroom.

Piedmont Triad | Will Marrs, Davie County High School, Davie County Schools

Marrs is sixth from the right. Courtesy of N.C. DPI

A drafting teacher who entered the profession six years ago via a residency license, Marrs knows the importance of bringing real-world relevancy to the classroom. He has forged relationships with local industry partners and established a program that places 50 Davie County students in internships each year.

“We are showing our students that a successful future can be had by staying in our county and that they need not travel farther than their backyard to step into a globally connected industry,” he said. “We have students that have seen their work produced to benefit manufacturing facilities across the nation.”

Marrs is passionate about exposing students to all their career options — not just those that require a four-year degree. He is a SkillsUSA advisor and worked with his students to create the War Eagle Can Trailer, a gamified, mobile recycling center that is used both at school and various community events.

Southwest | Sarah Lefebvre, Health Sciences Academy at Monroe Middle School, Union County Public Schools

Courtesy of N.C. DPI

Lefebvre, an eighth-grade math teacher, believes in the power of mistakes. In fact, she keeps a tally of her own mistakes on a poster in her classroom to encourage students to develop a growth mindset.

“A number of students come to me extremely anxious or embarrassed about making mistakes. They think that to be ‘good’ at math, one must always have the correct answer,” she said. “I meet these mistakes with, ‘I love the mistake you made’ and ‘You made a great mistake here, because…’ We practice sharing our mistakes from the first day, and discuss openly how we used our mistakes to adjust our process.”

A 16-year teaching veteran, Lefebvre has worked to increase retention at her school. She created a three-day Beginning Teacher Kickoff that includes training about best practices and classroom planning from experienced teachers like her.

Northwest | Erik Mortensen, Watauga High School, Watauga County Schools

Courtesy of N.C. DPI

Mortensen is an automotive service instructor, but his goal is to prepare students for success in any career path. A former business owner who has been in the classroom for five years, a key component of his lesson plans is teaching durable skills like communication and adaptability that can be applied to a variety of occupations.

“Teachers are society’s safety net. We must look at trends and attempt to have foresight when we offer options to our students in regard to career path options,” he said. “Many of our students are currently graduating while still lacking in critical job skills. Linking students up with local businesses can help them develop many of these skills while still in school.”

He also hosts a cookout to connect students with potential employers from across the community — which results in many students receiving job offers. He said it is crucial for schools to stay on top of changes in the workforce, especially as artificial intelligence revolutionizes many industries.

Western | Heather Smith, Waynesville Middle School, Haywood County Schools

Smith is pictured in the red vest. Courtesy of N.C. DPI

When eighth-grade math teacher Smith heard from parents who didn’t understand “new math,” she turned her students, their children, into teachers. At a “Pancakes with Parents” event, students worked in groups to demonstrate math concepts to their family members.

That’s just one example of how Smith, who has been teaching for seven years, puts relationships — with students, their families, and her colleagues — at the forefront of her work.

“Our experience during COVID showed us that no program, no technology or no system can replace the quality of having a teacher in person, face-to-face, forming relationships, encouraging those around us and sharing the importance of education in the lives of those we are teaching,” she said. “We are all in this together, and it takes everyone involved in public education to continue the cycle of touching lives forever.”

Outside the classroom, Smith is the faculty sponsor for her school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) and has organized fundraisers, tailgates, and spirit clubs to strengthen her school community.

Charter School | Lee Haywood, Uwharrie Charter Academy

Courtesy of N.C. DPI

An 18-year veteran educator, Haywood teaches both visual arts and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math), weaving the two together to show students the importance of creativity across all disciplines.

“Integrating the arts into content areas and into NC schools from top to bottom is an absolute must if we plan on our students being competitive, creative, and innovative,” she said. “The more math, ELA, science, history, and STEAM that my students can learn through their artwork, the more well-rounded education they will receive.”

Haywood established a relationship with a local nonprofit organization that takes donated materials from manufacturers and individuals to divert trash from landfills. In addition to creating art from what they find there, students learn about civic responsibility, their community, and art as a profession.

She is active in several national- and state-level arts advocacy groups, including the Randolph County Art Education Alliance, the N.C. Association of Scholastic Activities, the National Art Education Association, and the N.C. Art Education Association.

Stay tuned

On April 5, one of these amazing educators will be named the 2024 Burroughs Wellcome Fund North Carolina Teacher of the Year during an awards ceremony. The event will be livestreamed on DPI’s social media platforms, including YouTube and Facebook.

Learn more about the N.C. Teacher of the Year program on the NCDPI website.

Follow along on social media at #NCTOY.

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.