Becky Norkus decided she wanted to become a teacher while playing basketball with her little brother in the driveway of their parents’ North Raleigh home.
Her brother was 12 years younger, and they bonded as Norkus taught him how to dribble and play other games.
“I’d go out in the driveway with him and I remember thinking, ‘I just love teaching him,’ ” said Norkus, now 62.
Norkus turned her passion into a 30-year career as a physical education teacher with the Wake County school system. She has taught at Baileywick Road Elementary in North Raleigh since it opened in 1996.
But this spring, Norkus will teach her last class of students at Baileywick. She plans to retire at the end of the school year.
In her classroom Tuesday, a group of energized first-graders cheerfully tossed balls and rubber chickens around as they learned proper throwing and catching techniques.
The scene appeared chaotic, but when Norkus announced the activity was over, the children quickly, and quietly, sat in assigned spots at her feet. They raised their hands to share what they had learned.
“She has always been organized and structured,” said Baileywick art teacher Carly Savage, who has worked with Norkus for four years. “The fact that all the kids listen when sharing shows the respect they have for her.”
Norkus’ success in the classroom earned her the title of physical education teacher of the year in 2014 for Wake County and the state of North Carolina.
Savage said Norkus has taught her a lot about being an educator.
“I try to be just really encouraging with young teachers,” Norkus said.
Norkus graduated from Sanderson High School in Raleigh in 1971 and later married her high school sweetheart, Charley, who has also spent his career as an educator.
Norkus enrolled at N.C. State University but transferred to UNC-Greensboro after one year to specialize in physical education.
She began teaching in 1977 at Garner Elementary but took a 9-year hiatus after one year to raise a family. She and Charley have three children, who are all athletically inclined, and the family spent years rushing around to football, soccer and gymnastic events.
Two of Norkus’ children received college athletic scholarships, and her son, Caleb Norkus, coached Cary’s Green Hope High School soccer team in 2015. He had played and coached in the Caribbean since 2012, after his five-year stint with the Carolina RailHawks professional soccer team ended.
Norkus went to work at Swift Creek Elementary in 1987 and moved to Millbrook Elementary two years later. Then Millbrook’s principal asked her to become the first physical education teacher at Baileywick.
Ten-year-old Harmon van Deth said Norkus’ class is one of his favorites.
“She makes everything enjoyable,” Harmon said. “And any time we do an activity with her, she always makes us smile.”
First in Fitness
During her time at Baileywick, Norkus started the school’s Jump Rope for Heart contest, which benefits the American Heart and American Stroke associations. This year, students raised $6,839.
Norkus has also been a leader in the annual Wake County First in Fitness competitions since 1987. Students from various schools complete in events such as running and pull-ups.
Norkus said her students have never finished lower than second place.
Students participating in First in Fitness prepare three mornings a week from after the Christmas break until the March competition, and it means a lot to do well. But no matter what happens, Norkus tells her students the same thing on the way home: “As long as you do your best, and put your best effort forward, we are so proud of you.”
Over the years many students and parents have sent letters to Norkus telling her about the impact she had on their lives. It’s something she hopes younger teachers remember if they get discouraged.
“My advice is, remember the passion they have in teaching,” she said.
Norkus is disappointed when she talks to someone who had a negative experience in physical education class, and works to make sure her kids have fun.
“I want them to go and say, ‘I loved PE. I had the most fun in PE,’ ” she said.
Norkus earned certification from the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards in 2004, and she became an assessor for the organization the following year.
Last year, she became a national board trainer, and she plans to continue during retirement. She also wants to spend more time with her family and her church.
“I’m passionate about what I do,” she said. “I love it.”
Chris Cioffi: 919-829-4802, @ReporterCioffi