At Cary High School, students write messages on a poster inside Jo Ann Hines Duncan’s classroom:
You can sleep when you’re dead.
You lay down with the dogs, you get fleas.
Don’t mistake passion for anger.
Never miss a local story.
Students call the phrases “Duncanisms” in honor of Duncan, an English teacher. They call her “the Duncanator.” A sign above the classroom door proclaims the nickname.
“At least you know they’re taking notes,” Duncan said, laughing at the poster.
Duncan has been building close relationships with students for 50 years. She has spent 44 years of her career at Cary High.
This year, in honor of her half century of teaching, Duncan received the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, one of the highest honors the North Carolina governor can bestow on a citizen.
Famous recipients of the award include Maya Angelou, Andy Griffith, Michael Jordan and Dale Earnhart.
“I was very surprised,” said Duncan, 70. “I was thinking that I’m not even in the same category as these people.”
But she came to terms with the honor. After all, she said, it’s OK for a teacher to win.
“There are so many teachers out there that deserve to win this award,” Duncan said. “I think there’s a great deal of value in that a teacher with contributions in education could be recognized.”
Only four Wake County schools employees have 50 or more years of service to North Carolina schools, according to Renee McCoy, a spokeswoman for the school system. Along with Duncan, there are two teachers who have returned as substitutes, and a clerical assistant.
‘I just love teaching’
Duncan always knew she wanted to be a teacher. Since she was a little girl, she admired them.
“I grew up in a time and a community where teachers were so revered,” Duncan said. “I sort of had this image of my teachers: They knew everything, they spoke correctly, they dressed nicely. They represented the epitome of what it would be like to be an adult in the world.”
Back then, women had fewer career choices. Even so, Duncan said she would still choose the teaching profession today.
“During the time I was a child, girls my age thought about being nurses, secretaries, teachers, that sort of thing,” Duncan said. “But I’ll tell you, I’ve never felt that these were the only things that girls could ever do. I didn’t even think that when I was a little girl.
“I’ve always thought I could do whatever I wanted to do. And I just love teaching.”
Duncan was 20 when she started her career after graduating from the former Atlantic Christian College in Wilson in two and a half years. She didn’t have much money for school, she said, so she hurried through the teaching program and graduated early.
At her first job, in eastern North Carolina, Duncan was younger than some of her students who had fallen behind.
“The voting age is 21, and some of my older students would say, ‘You can’t tell me what to do, you can’t even vote!’ ” Duncan recalled with a laugh.
She earned her master’s degree from UNC-Chapel Hill a few years later and went on to receive post-graduate certification from N.C. State.
Keeping up with changes
Duncan is an English teacher now, but she taught everything from French to cooking and sewing at her previous four schools in Chapel Hill, Wilson County and the coast.
“If you see a need, you fill a need,” she said.
Now Duncan says the the hardest part about teaching for 50 years has been keeping up with the changing world.
“Each decade, the world changes more and more,” she said. “Values change, tools change, innovations change, infrastructure of things change – even how students react to the world has changed. It’s the most challenging thing and the most rewarding.”
For Duncan, it’s all about the relationships she builds with kids and watching them develop as students.
“In receiving this award, I’ve heard from kids I haven’t heard from in a long time through emails, phone calls and letters,” Duncan said. “You never really forget them. It’s heartwarming to see that they remember you.”