In a time when education has been turned on its head due to a global pandemic, one Spartan has been a shining example of innovation, resiliency, and grace for students, parents, and fellow educators alike.
Leah Carper ‘06, an English teacher at Northern Guilford High School, has been named the 2022 Burroughs Wellcome Fund N.C. Teacher of the Year.
“When my name was called, I immediately started crying, laughing, and feeling just about every emotion all at once. I’m just so excited and so proud.
The 16-year veteran of teaching was selected from a field of nine finalists representing the state’s eight education district and charter schools. Carper first won the title of Northern Guilford High’s teacher of the year before going on to win the district and regional titles.
“There are over 100,000 educators in North Carolina and 1.5 million public school students, so to be the representative of that population for the next year is massively humbling.”
As the Burroughs Welcome Fund Teacher of the Year, Carper will advocate for public education, serving as an advisor to the State Board of Education. She will also travel the state to different school districts sharing her knowledge as an ambassador for the teaching profession.
“I think it’s important for the teachers’ voice to be represented, so it’s my goal to bring their perspective to those who make decisions about education by working with the Teacher of the Year finalists from each region to understand the needs of both the children and the teachers for the betterment of our schools.”
What set Carper apart from hundreds of thousands of other educators across the state? During the pandemic, she turned to technology to engage students by creating a teaching Instagram account and a TikTok account, showing her students that teaching and learning can be fun. And when students were back in the classroom, she made it a priority to rebuild their feeling of togetherness.
“To be honored in this way after such a tumultuous two years of being remote, hybrid, and in-person is completely humbling. It was an exhausting, worrisome, but inspiring year as an educator. Kids were reeling from the pandemic, too, undergoing a tremendous amount of stress. So to be recognized for my efforts in helping students feel comfortable after being separated for so long and rebuilding our ‘school family’ is really special.”
The pandemic is often seen as one big teachable moment – for science, for society, for self retrospection. For Carper, the biggest lesson learned from the pandemic has been the important role mental health plays in our learning.
“Teachers are now not only fighting to hold students to a high level academically, but also recognizing that grace and kindness are just as important. It’s a proven fact that people when they’re in a state of distress. So, if we recognize the mental health needs of our students, and we are warm, kind, and empathetic, they will learn more, because they know that we care about them. In my class, students don’t just learn reading and writing. They learn how to navigate stress and be a better person.”
Carper’s passion for teaching was ignited as soon as she learned to read at the age of six. When she would come home from school, she would teach her three-year-old brother a simple sentence.
“I remember him feeling so accomplished and proud, and I loved being a part of that achievement and a part of his development. Knowing that I can have an impact on people’s lives in that way, where I can actually give them a skill that they can carry with them forever is something that inspires me to do my best daily.”
Carper received her bachelor’s degree in Secondary English Education from UNCG’s College of Arts and Sciences. She says the connections she made in that program were integral to her success.
“I think that UNCG did a good job putting my peers and I in internships and pairing us with the right mentors. They understood the value of hands-on, real-world experience to an aspiring educator.”
What is Carper’s advice to future Spartan teachers?
“Shadow as much as you can, visit schools as much as you can, and utilize social media. Most importantly, know that no day is ever going to go how you planned it. Every day will be different, and that’s the adventure of teaching. Always remember why you wanted to be a teacher, even on the bad days. Remember your ‘why’ – why you chose education and the difference you want to make. That will help you remember that it’s always worth it.”
Follow along Carper’s career on social media:
Instagram and TikTok: @how_i_teach_high_school
Story by Alexandra McQueen, University Communications
Photography courtesy of Leah Carper