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New NC Teacher of the Year Mariah Morris says equitable STEM education is her priority

The 2019 Burroughs Wellcome Fund North Carolina Teacher of the Year Mariah Morris was named Friday to represent teachers on a statewide platform. Morris, a second-grade teacher at West Pine Elementary School in Pinehurst, said she wants to create opportunities for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) learning for underserved populations.

“The language our 21st century students speak is the language of coding and robotics and computers and engineering. These skills are at a premium, and if we want our students to be competitive in the global economy after they graduate, we must begin by providing them an equitable opportunity to STEM education,” Morris said as she accepted her title in Cary.

Morris — who has been teaching for 13 years in both high school and elementary school settings — said reaching students from diverse backgrounds with diverse needs is at the core of her teaching philosophy.

“This can and be should be a statement of equity,” she said. “We must encourage, we must nurture, and we must push our students who traditionally underperform in STEM-related jobs and professions to take the leap and find their voice as a successful 21st century learner.”

Morris was selected from nine finalists, eight from different geographic regions of the state and one who represented charter schools. The position is selected by a committee of educators, business, and community leaders each year. Morris will sit on the State Board of Education as an advisor for two years and will travel the state advocating for the teaching profession.

Watch below to hear Morris’s acceptance speech.

Morris said growing up in Durham in a blue-collar family exposed her to a diverse set of friends and a diverse community from an early age.

“When I look back on the reason I became a teacher, it wasn’t because of one specific adult,” she said. Rather, it was the story of my peers, specifically my peers who weren’t successful in school, who influenced me to enter the world of education.”

In middle school, Morris said her teachers noticed her academic performance and led her to enroll in honors courses and pursue postsecondary education. Her life was suddenly changed, she said, and she had opportunities that some of her friends didn’t.

“I felt that it was unfair that our paths in school diverged from each other,” she said. “I became a teacher to change lives. I became a teacher as a call to social justice so that I could help reach the needs of all of my diverse learners.”

Morris said she moved to rural Moore County because of her husband, where she has learned about the diverse needs in a different part of the state and has been exposed to the poverty in rural schools. 

“He showed me another piece of that equity puzzle,” she said. 

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.