Cary News

Wake County Teacher of the Year finalists seek to inspire students

Kim Zeugner teaches fifth grade and specializes in math at Kingswood Elementary. “I want them to remember me as a caring, patient, slightly crazy, sometimes funny, hard-working person who got excited about the content I taught,” she said.
Kim Zeugner teaches fifth grade and specializes in math at Kingswood Elementary. “I want them to remember me as a caring, patient, slightly crazy, sometimes funny, hard-working person who got excited about the content I taught,” she said. COURTESY OF KIM ZEUGNER

Teachers, like everyone else, collect a paycheck for the work they do. But some might argue it’s harder to quantify the breadth and importance of that work.

Beyond crafting lessons and grading homework, parents trust teachers as co-conspirators in the effort to ensure their children emerge from school with the skills and grounding to survive and thrive on their own.

Every year, Wake County names a teacher of the year, recognizing educators who make a difference in the lives of their students and the communities they live in. Candidates are nominated and elected by their colleagues at their schools. They assemble portfolios of their work. For there, 26 semi-finalists are picked, then 13 finalists.

The winner will be named Wednesday, May 11. Here are the finalists from Cary and southwestern Wake County.

Jesse Gore, Dillard Drive Middle

Age: 26

The basics: Gore teaches seventh-grade social studies and has spent all of his five-year teaching career at Dillard Drive.

Extra credit: In addition to being the school’s yearbook adviser, Gore facilitates a human rights-focused pen pal program between his students and their counterparts in Sweden.

Why he teaches: “I became a teacher because I want to help students gain confidence and to feel empowered. Students need to know that they have an opportunity to create a positive change now and into the future and that they can help to correct injustices when they see them. I like to create a fire in students where they know that they can truly make a difference in the world.”

Best advice he’s ever received: “Teaching can be a challenge, and there are some difficult days, especially in the middle school setting. The best advice I’ve received about being a teacher is to start each day with a fresh mindset and to not let things get to me that I cannot control.”

How he wants students to remember him: “I set very high expectations for my students, not only as learners but as young men and women. I want them to remember me as someone who was their advocate at all times, but who pushed them to reach their fullest potential and believe that they always had room to grow.”

Melissa Jankowski, Highcroft Elementary

Age: 42

The basics: Jankowski teaches second grade. She has spent five years of her 10-year teaching career at Highcroft Elementary School. She has taught in Illinois, Georgia, California and North Carolina.

Extra credit: Teacher Leader Corps member, Leadership Team grade level chair

Why she teaches: “I became a teacher because I saw the effect my father had on his students as a high school teacher. As a young child, I can recall his students going out of their way to tell me that he was the best teacher they ever had because he made learning meaningful. Also, I became a teacher because I want to be a part of a group of people that dedicate their lives to making a positive impact on the community and the country.”

Best advice she’s ever received: “The best advice I ever received was: Kids don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

How she wants students to remember her: “I want my students to remember me as someone who taught them to be proud of their effort to work hard and think deeply. I want them to remember to strive for success and to be a good person, not simply for extrinsic motivation but because of an inner drive to reach goals and standards they set for themselves.”

Leigh Ann Massengill, Fuquay-Varina Elementary

Age: 58

The basics: Massengill has been a literacy intervention teacher at Fuquay-Varina elementary for six years. Her 20 years of experience include work at two other Wake County Schools, including Ballentine Elemenetary in Fuquay-Varina and West Lake Elementary in Apex, and four years at LaFayette Elementary in Harnett County.

Extra credit: As mentor coordinator, she oversees relationships between beginning teachers and their teacher mentors. Massengill also develops and presents workshops at WCPSS’s Parent Academy, a program meant to involve parents with their child’s education.

Why she teaches: “My story began with a rare congenital visual disability. In first grade, I dealt with ridicule and isolation. Mrs. Crawford’s second-grade classroom was a haven as she modeled compassion and empathy to my classmates. Due to a verbally abusive father, I had emotional wounds. In eighth grade, Mrs. Zambelli accepted, encouraged and challenged me to stretch myself. They inspired me to become a teacher who addresses more than academic needs. My desire is to be worthy of my calling.”

Best advice she’s ever received: “In ‘The Courage to Teach,’ Parker J. Palmer states good teachers possess a ‘capacity for connectedness’ and are able to weave a complex web of connections between themselves, their subjects and their students, helping their students weave a world for themselves. Connections made by good teachers are held not in their methods, but in their hearts.” Dave Burgess’s ‘Teach Like a Pirate’ inspires passion and going into uncharted territories to pursue what I value. Resonating within me is the quote, ‘No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.’ 

How she wants students to remember her: “Positive relationships are a priority for me. My goal is to model and live out the phrase, ‘Treat others the way that you want to be treated.’ Our motto is, ‘Nothing less than your very best.’ I encourage and challenge students to reach their fullest potential. It brings a smile to my face when a student reminisces about the fun we had as I made up silly chants, songs and movements to make information memorable.”

Elizabeth Shaver, Holly Springs High

Age: 39

The basics: Shaver teaches Advanced Placement United States History. She has been teaching at Holly Springs High School six years of her nine-year teaching career. She previously taught at middle schools in the Antioch Unified School District in California.

Extra credit: Co-chair to the Social Studies department, co-adviser to the Social Studies Honor Society, co-adviser to the senior class, post-prom party facilitator and Pride Club facilitator.

Why she teaches: “I realized my junior year of high school, in Mr. Ekdahl’s class, that history education was my passion. I remember loving the history, but more importantly, I remember how much I enjoyed being there, and how much he enjoyed being there as well. I wanted that for my career.”

Best advice she’s ever received: “It wasn’t advice as it was guidance. My first principal took the time to teach me how to teach and instilled in me the idea that teaching is a journey and not a destination. There is always more to learn and new approaches to try.”

How she wants students to remember her: “I hope they remember that I challenged them academically, but even more importantly, how much fun we all had in class every day.”

Kim Zeugner, Kingswood Elementary

The basics: Zeugner teaches fifth grade and specializes in math. This is her 13th year teaching and her seventh year at Kingswood Elementary. She also has taught at Northwoods Elementary in Cary.

Extra credit: Zeugner leads the Horticulture Club. She previously served on the school improvement lead team and the STEM lead team; has been the PowerSchool’s liaison for three years; and has chaired a committee on employee relations.

Why she teaches: “I became a teacher to ignite curiosity and a love of learning and discovery in young people on the cusp of their lives. I want my students to know I have faith in them and respect them as individuals, and that treating each other well is the way to succeed in life. I am always asking, ‘Why?,’ to encourage independent thinking and reason. I want my students to always question, ponder, communicate and consider ideas, soak up every experience, and to make the world a better place.”

Best advice she’s ever received: “That you are always teaching. You have a curriculum to teach and you do it with passion, but students also watch how you listen, react, handle frustration and show responsibility. Students should see my work ethic and preparation. They should see that I am still learning and finding joy in that. They should see that I am human and make mistakes. I am with them for one year, a small blip on the screen of their long lives, but I hope that the way I have conducted myself and the experiences we have shared will mean something as they grow and mature and take on the world.”

How she wants students to remember her: “I want them to remember me as a caring, patient, slightly crazy, sometimes funny, hard-working person who got excited about the content I taught and really enjoyed our time together. I want them to remember someone who loved learning, who loved history, math, words, laughter, my Tar Heels, and service to others, but who loved them even more.”

Other finalists

▪ Kelly Fink, East Wake Middle

▪ Anthony Fitzpatrick, Enloe High

▪ Lauren Genesky, Millbrook High

▪ Mark Mash, Leesville Road High

▪ Miles Macleod, Heritage High

▪ Brittany Packer, Smith Magnet Elementary

▪ Tanya Swanson, Richland Creek Elementary

▪ Jennifer Tymkin, Hunter Elementary