Leah Carper, an English teacher at Northern Guilford High School, was named the 2022 Burroughs Wellcome Fund North Carolina Teacher of the Year during an awards luncheon today at the Umstead Hotel in Cary. Carper was selected from a field of nine finalists representing the state’s eight education districts and charter schools.
Known in her school as a “student’s teacher,” Carper emphasizes student engagement in her classroom as one of her highest priorities, whether teaching face-to-face or virtually during months of remote instruction forced by the COVID-19 pandemic.
While teaching via computer last year, Carper invited “guest” visitors into her virtual classroom to win the attention of her screen-weary students. One day it may have been “Grammar Grandma” to warn against run-on sentences; another day, Mr. Eddie Kit to teach proper etiquette when composing a professional email. Others included Batman, the Grinch, Banksy, Hagrid, Hermione Granger and even Shakespeare.
“When it comes to teaching, I’m going to do what works for my students,” Carper said in her Teacher of the Year submission. “Sometimes that means dressing up in silly costumes. Other times it’s selecting reading materials that appeal to their interests, experiences and ideals.”
She said she takes her cues from her students and what they need and tailors her approach to what works best for them.
“My classroom isn’t just my classroom; it’s theirs too,” she explains. “No matter what, I’m always willing to try something new, creative, weird, or random if I think it will effectively grab and keep the attention and imagination of my students.”
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt said Carper’s approach is both refreshing and astute.
“It takes a special teacher to understand what really interests and motivates high school students,” Truitt said, “and it’s clear that Leah has found a way into their world that makes learning fun, engaging and effective. She’s very deserving of this important recognition.”
Janiese McKenzie, principal of Northern Guilford High School, said in her letter recommending Carper as Teacher of the Year that she’s able to engage with all students, “from those who struggle the most to those that are academically gifted.”
“Leah exemplifies outstanding, engaging teaching better than anyone in my 20-plus years of educational experience,” McKenzie said. “My greatest disappointment is that I don’t have more teachers like her, willing to go the extra mile to engage students in their learning and feel like they and their voice are valued.”
Carper has been an English teacher at Northern Guilford High since 2016. She started her teaching career in 2006 at Western Guilford High after earning a bachelor’s degree in English education from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She also holds a master’s degree in educational leadership from Queens University of Charlotte.
Carper succeeds the 2021 Teacher of the Year, Eugenia Floyd, a fourth-grade teacher at Mary Scroggs Elementary School in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district. The N.C. Burroughs Wellcome Teacher of the Year is chosen by a committee of professional educators as well as business and community leaders. The state selection committee members are chosen based on their active public record in support of education.
Dr. Lou Muglia, president and CEO of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, said the foundation continues to be proud to support the North Carolina Teacher of the Year Award.
“The impact these awardees have had on innovation in education, diversity and equity in our schools has been enormous,” Muglia said. “We look forward to working closely with the 2022 Teacher of the Year and team of regional finalists to foster an environment of curiosity, inclusion and access for all students in the state.”
Keeping students center stage, Carper sees her role as more than just a teacher of content.
Some teachers, she said, “forget that students are not just students of our curriculum, but they are students of humanity. They are learning how to be good people, and they get a large portion of that education from their teachers. This is a huge responsibility. Every day, teachers are shaping the way adults interact in the future.”
She also engages with students on their turf, adopting social media platforms to reach them where they spend a lot of time. She’s created a teaching-based Instagram account: @how_i_teach_high_school and joined TikTok after her students urged her to post one of their favorite videos of hers to see if it would go viral there. It did.
“Social media is their handheld community, and it worries me how much they rely on social media to get their news, entertainment and validation,” Carper said. “It’s important to show students that what we are learning is relevant and can be applied to other aspects of their lives, and social media is a huge part of their lives.”
She said she also uses social media to promote public education to a broader public audience.
“I use social media to show the world that teachers can be fun, approachable, kind, and smart and to engage and excite people about what’s going on in public schools,” she said.
Safety, including physical, emotional, and intellectual dimensions, is also an important focus for her, Carper said, especially after the last couple of years of disruptions.
“I want nothing more than for my students to feel safe when they are in my class,” she said. “I want them to feel like if they have a question or a comment, they are safe to share it. I want them to feel safe to express if they’re struggling emotionally and need an extension on an assignment. I want them to feel like our classroom is a safe place to laugh and express themselves, because when they feel safe, they can learn.”
Carper said that if she can help her students understand what it means to be a good person, she can say she was a successful teacher.
“I teach English. We cover reading and writing skills in my class,” she said. “I have taught my students grammar, vocabulary, writing, research, rhetoric, and poetry. My students score well on their standardized tests, too.
“But when my students reach out to me years after leaving my classroom, they don’t talk about how great it is that they finally learned what a transition sentence does. They talk about how the class made them feel and about how it made them think about the world around them.”
As with other regional finalists, Carper was first recognized this school year as teacher of the year at her school and district.
As Teacher of the Year, she will spend the next school year traveling the state as an ambassador for the teaching profession as supported by Burroughs Wellcome Fund and the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.
In addition, Carper will have the opportunity to participate in a seminar at the NC Center for the Advancement of Teaching (NCCAT), receive a mobile device from Lenovo valued at approximately $1,600, an engraved vase, a cash award of $7,500, a trip to the National Teacher of the Year Conference and International Space Camp, a prize pack and opportunity to be honored during a football game from NC State Athletics, support from No Kid Hungry NC, a cash award of $2,000 from Flow Honda to assist with travel costs in the state as Teacher of the Year, a cash award of $1,000 from Bojangles and the opportunity to travel abroad through an endowment sponsored by Go Global NC.
Carper also will serve as an advisor to the State Board of Education for two years and as a board member for the NC Public School Forum for one year.
The other regional finalists were:
- Northeast: Clinton Todd, J.H. Rose High (Pitt County Schools)
- Southeast: Abbey Nobles, New Hanover High (New Hanover County Schools)
- North Central: Brian Link, East Chapel Hill High (Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools)
- Sandhills: Elizabeth Santamour, East Hoke Middle (Hoke County Schools)
- Southwest: Ashtyn Berry, W.R. Odell Elementary (Cabarrus County Schools)
- Northwest: Ashley Bandy, Newton-Conover High (Newton-Conover City Schools)
- West: Ryan Mitchell, Mills River Elementary (Henderson County Public Schools)
- Charter Schools: Keegan Storrs, Roxboro Community School
North Carolina has recognized outstanding teachers through its Teacher of the Year program since 1970. For more information on North Carolina’s Teacher of the Year recognition program, visit the program’s website. You also can follow the North Carolina Teacher of the Year finalists on Twitter at #NCTOYPOY
With support from Equitable Advisors and PBS North Carolina, a recording of this year’s livestream of the Teacher of the Year event will be available on DPI’s YouTube channel following the event.