Mariah Morris, a second-grade teacher at West Pine Elementary School in Pinehurst, was named the 2019 Burroughs Wellcome Fund North Carolina Teacher of the Year Friday.
Morris becomes the first Moore County Schools teacher in the 40 years of the award to win the honor. She was celebrated at a luncheon in Cary Friday attended by top state officials.
Morris was selected from a field of nine finalists representing the state’s eight education districts and charter schools. State Superintendent Mark Johnson said Morris represents forward-thinking teachers across North Carolina who are helping lead transformative innovation in the state’s schools.
“Mariah’s second graders are fortunate to have her as their teacher,” Johnson said, “and North Carolina is fortunate to have her in the classroom, helping to inspire and shape a future generation of North Carolinians to be ready to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”
A proponent of equity in education, Morris grew up in a blue-collar family and watched her parents pour their sweat and tears into building the American dream. Inspired by their hard work and a desire to help disadvantaged students like many of the friends she grew up with, she became a teacher.
“Too many of our students feel disengaged with their education,” Morris wrote in her Teacher of the Year submission. “Many of our current pedagogical practices feel out of touch with the recent boom in technological advancement. Student-led, problem-based learning should be at the forefront on our classroom instruction.”
Moore County Schools Superintendent Bob Grimesey noted in a letter supporting Morris’ nomination that she also champions all students.
“She tirelessly advocates for students who are academically behind,” Grimesey said. “She truly believes in the importance of education and strives to make choices in her classroom and school that reach students from diverse backgrounds.”
Morris succeeds the 2018 Teacher of the Year, Bryan Freebird McKinney, a social studies teacher at Walter M. Williams High School in Burlington. The teacher of the year is chosen by a committee of professional educators as well as business and community leaders. The state selection committee members are chosen based on their active public record in support of education.
Alfred Mays, program officer for science education and diversity with the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the flagship sponsor of the North Carolina Teacher of the Year Program, said the foundation is proud to help honor educators who exemplify great teaching and leadership.
“Each of the nine finalists represent the very best of teaching in their regions and are leaders in a profession whose contribution can never be recognized or rewarded enough,” Mays said. “The Burroughs Wellcome Fund is honored to help lift up these teachers for the important contribution they make day in and day out.”
Morris was Moore County Schools 2018-2019 Teacher of the Year and, in December, was recognized as the 2019 South Central Regional Teacher of the Year.
She attended the University of North Carolina on a Teaching Fellows scholarship and during her time at Chapel Hill volunteered for a homeless shelter and GED program for high school dropouts.
“It was at UNC where I solidified my calling to help break the cycle of poverty in my community,” she said, “and show children how to dream big to reach their goals.”
Morris saw how public education can step in and help students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, “and I grew up seeing what education can do for the higher achieving students and I truly do believe that we are the window into some children’s lives and the only thing that can push them forward,” she said in an interview with The Pilot last year.
After five years of teaching English in high schools in Durham, Wake and Guilford county school districts, Morris said she felt that she wasn’t able to reach the 100 students she saw each day in the way that she had hoped and planned — especially those in need of extra help.
She decided she could have a greater impact as an elementary school teacher.
She and her husband Austin, who teaches social studies at Pinecrest, decided to move to Moore County as a midpoint between their families. Morris made the switch to elementary school because she felt she could do more to help struggling 7-year-olds. She’s now in her third year teaching at West Pine.
“I work hard to build trust with my students by restructuring my curriculum to engage and excite all of my students,” Morris said. “I have integrated a student-led, STEM-infused, curriculum in my elementary classroom that aligns with the North Carolina Standard Course of Study. Students in my classroom are excited to learn how to critically think, problem solve and work together to navigate challenges that integrate technology and engineering with our academic standards.”
Morris has also forged connections with the community. She founded a guest-speakers program at West Pine Elementary called Read to Lead, which draws on local community members to share with second graders about their jobs, educational backgrounds and how they were able to achieve success as learners. She has also established a mentoring relationship with the district’s Pinecrest High School basketball team, whose members visit her school to read to the elementary school students and talk about positive school choices.
Morris said her emphasis will be on STEM learning, or lessons that focus on and apply Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.
“As educators,” she said, “we must rethink our schools and provide a solid, equitable STEM education to the children of our state so that they can compete with their peers from around the country.”
As Burroughs Wellcome Fund North Carolina Teacher of the Year, she will spend the next school year traveling the state as an ambassador for the teaching profession as supported by Voya Financial and the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.
She will receive the use during her period of service a new vehicle, leased from Flow Automotive, LLC, the opportunity to attend a seminar at the NC Center for the Advancement of Teaching (NCCAT), a mobile device from Lenovo valued at approximately $1,600, an engraved vase, a one-time cash award of $7,500, a trip to the National Teacher of the Year Conference and International Space Camp, a prize pack and opportunity to be honored during a football game from NC State Athletics, support from No Kid Hungry NC, and the opportunity to travel abroad through an endowment sponsored by Go Global NC.
Morris also will serve as an advisor to the State Board of Education for two years and as a board member for the NC Public School Forum for one year. In addition, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction will sponsor her enrollment and completion of the Public School Forum’s Education Policy Fellowship Program.