Five of the finalists for the Wake County Teacher of the Year award work at schools in North Raleigh and Wake Forest.
The Wake County Public School System named 13 finalists for the award. The finalists come from a pool of teachers elected by their peers at their individual schools. The winner will be named May 14.
Here, local finalists share their thoughts.
Jean Hockenyos, Wakefield Elementary School
Job: Literacy intervention
Education: Bachelor’s degree from Winthrop University; master’s in early childhood education from the University of Charleston
Experience: Teaching 30 years, the last 15 years at Wakefield Elementary
Hockenyos said she loves the “ah-ha” moment, when her students begin to understand the material she works to teach them.
“My favorite part of the school day is when I can celebrate with a child his or her success,” she said. “Sometimes we even do the ‘happy dance’ together.”
As a child, Hockenyos loved to play school and play the part of a teacher.
“Nothing has changed,” she said. “I still love being the teacher.”
Austin James, Millbrook High School
Subject: Math and statistics
Education: Bachelor’s degree from N.C. State University; master’s in education from Wake Forest University
Experience: Has taught for seven years at Millbrook High
James wanted to become a teacher after experiencing firsthand how important a teacher or a coach can be to a student.
“When I was in high school, I recognized what a huge impact my teachers and coaches had on me – my values, my worldview and my growth,” he said. “I decided that I wanted the chance to have a similar impact on others.”
Now, as a math teacher and baseball coach, James can foster the same kind of environment for his students.
He said the best part of his day changes, but it always comes back to a student using his or her knowledge to make a new connection.
“It is very fulfilling to see a student gain confidence, right before your eyes,” James said.
Dave Jones, Brentwood Elementary School
Subject: Physical Education
Education: Bachelor’s degree from Penn State University; master’s in health from East Carolina University; working on a doctorate in education at UNC-Greensboro
Experience: Teaching 10 years, seven years at Brentwood
Jones initially was inspired to teach by his mother, who taught physical education for 30 years, and his own love of sports as a child. He thought he would teach high school, but his first assignment landed him in an elementary school, where he quickly found a home.
“They’re always so happy, and they’re still innocent,” Jones said of his students. “They’re so enthused for physical education. I probably get a hundred hugs a day.”
Jones said one of the best parts of teaching is watching students learn new skills. Seeing a kindergartner master the jump rope never loses its joy, he said.
As a physical education teacher, Jones said he likes that he can interact with students from year to year as they mature.
“I look forward to my job every day,” he said. “Not everyone can say that.”
Clint McCaskill, Heritage High School
Experience: Teaching 12 years, three years at Heritage High
Education: Bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Appalachian State University
Some teachers might be scared to stand in front of a room of almost 100 teenagers with noisy instruments.
Not Clint McCaskill.
“For me, it is a thrill and pleasure,” the band director said. “No matter if the sounds are pleasant or a work in progress, I am honored to be standing before them and guiding them through the incredible process of making music.”
McCaskill said his favorite part of the process comes when he can “hear the brain cells working.” He likes to focus on helping students through the learning process, not simply imparting knowledge.
“My job as an educator is ... to observe (students) in practice and determine what obstacles stand in the way of their learning and then create plans to help remove those obstacles.”
Sydney Sherry, York Elementary School
Job: Tier II reading interventionist
Education: Bachelor’s degree in childhood education and special education from Niagara University
Experience: Teaching eight years
Sherry said she loves sharing her passion for reading with her students.
“For me, reading has been something I loved to do outside of school,” she said. “ I think passing that love on to students is really rewarding.”
Sherry taught second and third grades for six years before becoming the reading interventionist. At first, she was nervous about working with the youngest children in the school because they wouldn’t be as independent as her older students.
But she quickly grew to love kindergartners and first-graders.
“It is just so much fun because they are like sponges,” she said.
Sherry counts her own fifth-grade teacher among her main inspirations. “She made every day feel like an adventure. You never knew what you were going to get.”