A meal with North Carolina’s Teacher of the Year

by Jeff Laughlin

When I asked Karyn Dickerson how it felt to be the best at something, she laughed.

“I don’t think I am the best. I certainly don’t think that,” Dickerson said.

She will have to take that up with the state of North Carolina since they chose her as Teacher of the Year last week.

Her husband Jade and I, old friends from college, sat with her at Taqueria el Azteca near Guilford College. It was dollar-taco night, which, I suppose, is what you get when two teachers’ salaries meet up with that of an editorial intern. Originally I had planned on getting someting more exotic.

After eating a few tacos, I learned that she had strayed from her original plans as well. She decided to forgo teaching altogether before she attended UNC-Chapel Hill for her undergraduate degree.

“I chose to be a double major in English and Biology. Then I walked into an advanced calculus class. I smelled math in there and it freaked me out. That day I dropped the class and withdrew from the major,” she said.

That freak-out, however, did not immediately lead her to education.

“It’s funny, because I never wanted to do this.

It was my father who constantly told me I was going to become a teacher, but both of my degrees are in English.”

She was the only one eating a vegetarian plate while I nursed the only beer on the table. The three of us shared stories of how we ended up where we were as the restaurant quieted and emptied. Most of the night, the Dickersons interviewed me. Our mothers both taught. Our fathers both believed we would teach as well.

The process behind picking a statewide Teacher of the Year demands a lot from the participants, but Dickerson insisted the process gave her a chance to think about her role. After her Grimsley High School colleagues chose her to take part in the competition, she had to compile a portfolio, attend interviews, give a presentation and, of course, be observed in the classroom.

“Writing the portfolio gives you a chance to reflect, which is important,” she said. “It’s short, like 13 or so pages.”

Her students may disagree on what she thinks “short” means, but she says the most daunting time of the year came later.

“Well, first you are nominated by your school, then you go through the county. Then regionals — there are eight public regions and one charter region — then the state has you make a presentation in this tiny room to three people. It feels strange talking to such a small crowd. And you can’t use technology at all.” Dickerson seemed exhausted talking about it. “They make you schedule interviews for yourself, your principal, coworkers, students, everybody.”

Having won, she said she has to begin preparing for a year of travel. She will become North Carolina’s ambassador for education, which means a meeting with President Obama in the Rose Garden and a trip to Germany with the Center of International Understanding, a NC organization that looks to broaden perspectives of students and teachers with ideas from abroad.

She has experience with being an ambassador from her days in Scotland. As a Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholar, she attended the University of Glasgow to earn her masters in English. While there, she traveled to rotary clubs across Scotland and England talking about the United States and, more particularly, North Carolina.

Of course, removing her from the classroom conflicts with the award’s meaning.

“It felt bittersweet to leave the school for a year. My coworkers and the students were upset. I did make a promise to write my students’ college recommendations. It was the first thing one of them asked when I made the announcement to my class,” she said, laughing.

As we waited for the checks, she remembered something.

“Oh, the most exciting thing! This sounds so ridiculous, but I get to go to space camp.” Dickerson smiled so big, I thought she might dislocate her jaw. My jealously must have shown, because she tried to hide her smile for a moment. We talked about how space camp reigned over our imaginations. I told a story about going to an exhibit at Discovery Place in Charlotte when I was younger and sticking my hand in some water mixture that didn’t get my hand wet.

“It’s like oobleck,” she explained.

“It’s this substance my mom made for a class and had me help her. You should make some.” I cannot help but laugh as she describes the non-Newtonian liquid. I wanted to joke that she had given me homework, but I settled for knowing her father was right about her destiny. Even outside the classroom, she’s still teaching.