Recognition may have come a few months later than usual, but Moore County Schools’ district-wide Teacher and Principal of the Year couldn’t hide their smiles behind face masks when the district surprised them with their awards this past week.
Each school in the district nominated a teacher for the award, giving the district no shortage of passionate educators to choose from. The district was originally scheduled to recognize each school’s nominee, and name the districtwide honorees, in an April banquet that was canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak.
At long last, Superintendent Bob Grimesey and school board members stopped in at Elise Middle School on Tuesday to declare Elaina Aponte the district’s 2020-2021 Teacher of the Year.
It’s been a big year for Aponte, who earned a master’s degree in special education from East Carolina University and moved from West Pine Elementary to Elise in 2019. But she’s taught students with special needs for 25 years, beginning at Sandhills Children’s Center, and has been with Moore County Schools since 2011.
“Growing up, I don’t recall visibly seeing students with disabilities on campus, grade school, high school, anywhere. They were present, just not visible,” she wrote in her application to the Teacher of the Year selection committee.
Then, in high school, she got a part-time job at a center for individuals with disabilities and then a weekend job at an adult group home. From that point on, she’s dedicated her career and education to helping those with disabilities reach their potential and live the fullest lives possible.
“I personally try to present an inviting, positive atmosphere in my classroom where my students and others in our school feel at home and are eager to come back and learn. It is in those inviting environments that students feel loved. It is in those inviting environments where you can truly connect with students and start the journey of success with them and their families,” she wrote.
“I believe all my students can contribute to their community in some fashion, now and when they graduate from high school. I work hard to assist my students in learning skills that they can carry with them for possible future job skills and for their daily living.”
To address the full spectrum of her students’ needs, Aponte routinely incorporates yoga, cooking, and science into her classes. She also practices reverse inclusion, bringing in student volunteers who are at or ahead of grade-level development to learn alongside her students.
“To see both populations learn and accept one another is truly beautiful,” Aponte wrote. “I am happy that we live in a day and time that all students with the right support and tools can learn together and accept one another.”
Aponte will move forward for consideration as Sandhills Regional Teacher of the Year. In the event that she can’t participate, the district’s runner-up, Jessie Stroven, will compete in her place. Stroven teaches first grade at Pinehurst Elementary.
New Century Middle School Principal Tracy Metcalf also got a shock on Tuesday when district leaders dropped by to name her as Moore County Schools’ Principal of the Year.
Metcalf, who taught social studies at Union Pines before earning her administrative certification through Sandhills Leadership Academy, was the district’s Teacher of the Year in 2011.
She took an indirect path to education, going through college with the goal of working for the U.S. Department of State. But she got a job working for a civic education nonprofit in Washington, D.C. and found that she clicked with the students who came through.
“A lot of the kids we got probably had not traveled a lot before or had that experience. I was just enamored with the idea of seeing kids light up when they learned something, or something struck them,” Metcalf said. “It was that experience that led me to realize that I wanted to be in a traditional school.”
After earning a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction, Metcalf came to Moore County Schools as the districtwide social studies lead teacher. When the lead teacher program was cancelled, she moved to Union Pines. She taught history there and coordinated the school’s beginning teacher program.
But to make schools better for everyone working in them, she knew she needed some experience from the executive desk. So she decided to pursue administration. The schools shuffled Metcalf, as an intern in the leadership academy and then a newly certified administrator, through a series of positions at Elise, Union Pines and Crains Creek before she took up the permanent post at New Century.
In the process, she found a dimension to the job of school principal that she’d never considered as a teacher. Along the way, Metcalf said that she’s had an unfailing support system to rely on in her fellow Moore County Schools’ middle school principals.
“You don’t know the amazing number of decisions that you make in a day. You don’t realize the importance of knowing a staff, understanding where they’re coming from and being able to leverage their strengths to make the school effective,” she said. “You can’t know any of that until you sit in the chair, and it became really exciting to figure out.”
The state’s abrupt closure of schools as the coronavirus pandemic progressed didn’t set schools up to end on a high note. But Metcalf said that the following months demonstrated her teachers’ commitment to their students’ learning.
“My people, they not only got up after every blow that we took this year, they went forward. They did more and they did better. They didn’t just maintain; they were able to support these kids academically, socially, and emotionally in ways that I never would have thought that people could do,” she said.
“This is the year that proved that nothing could break us as a staff. That, I am very proud of.”