Educating young people is arguably one of the most important jobs there is. It’s also one of the most challenging, with long hours and relatively low pay, not to mention the task of having to control dozens of rowdy kids. Thankfully, there are dedicated people who are passionate about teaching, especially around Lake Norman, which has some of the country’s top schools. While all these teachers deserve to be honored, below we recognize six of the area’s best, all nominated by their schools and selected for their achievements, honors, and years of service. These are the people who are pushing students to reach their fullest potential and to truly make a difference in the world.
Julie S. McConnell William A. Hough High School A worm set self-proclaimed science nerd Julie McConnell on her career path 20 years ago when she helped a class of middle school students dissect one of the invertebrates during an undergraduate internship. “It was awesome,” she says. “They were so excited. It was the most fun I’d ever had and it changed my life.” McConnell taught biology and chemistry at North Mecklenburg High School for 13 years before moving to William A. Hough High School in Cornelius when it opened three years ago. A National Board Certified teacher, she serves as chair of Hough’s Science Department and teaches biology and AP biology as well as mentors new teachers. She founded a Science Olympiad team, which has more than 40 members and has won many local and state competitions. She’s also the sponsor of the newly formed Science National Honor Society. “I love the day-to-day spark when a student gets it,” says McConnell. “But the greatest satisfaction is getting emails from former students majoring in chemistry, biology, or going to med school who tell me how much my class meant to them. I love hearing that my former students are successful doing what they love and knowing I had something to do with it.”
Noel Freidline Davidson Day School Two years ago, at the request of Davidson Day School administrators, Noel Freidline—pianist, vocalist, arranger, composer, educator, and Davidson Day parent—developed a non-traditional music program that has parents and fellow teachers clamoring to sit in. “I describe it as ‘School of Rock’ meets ‘Glee,’ with a heavy dose of digital technology and a sprinkling of music theory,” says Freidline. “I try to imagine what I would have wanted a teacher to do to catch my interest.” The course is a mix of music appreciation, history, and American pop culture that’s accessible and relevant to students regardless of musical training or interests. For example, a recent class studied Henry Ford, an automotive industry pioneer, and former U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower, founder of the interstate highway system, and their impact on American culture. It then used these lessons as a springboard to explore iconic car-themed songs, such as “Route 66” and “Pink Cadillac.” Freidline has also used the film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” to introduce roots and bluegrass music to students and spark discussion of the film’s parallels to Homer’s “The Odyssey.” “I think of what I do as a teacher as planting seeds,” says Freidline. “When you open one door of creativity for a kid, you never know what it will lead to.”
Amy Ward Mooresville High School Mooresville High School Teacher of the Year Amy Ward could have made a great deal more money as an actuary than a teacher, but fortunately for her students, she decided she was “too ADD to sit behind a desk all day.” Among her many accomplishments over her seven years at Mooresville High, Ward developed the Honors Discrete Math program, a high-level course that utilizes real-world applications to illustrate complex math concepts, such as using graph theory to map the most efficient delivery route, or coming up with alternative methods for counting votes. Ward, who serves as assistant coach for the track and cross country teams, also organized a tutoring program two nights each week at the Selma Burke Community Center when she realized it was difficult for older students to stay for after-school tutoring because of sports, jobs, or caring for younger siblings. “I decided to take the tutoring to them,” she says. “It has turned out to be a great program. All the teachers said they get more out of it than they give. So many parents have thanked us and said it showed we wanted to be a part of their lives.”
Dwayne Bowman Woodlawn School Woodlawn School founder and teacher Dwayne Bowman knew he was taking on a real challenge when he and his wife Karen moved from Seattle to Davidson and set out to create a different kind of school in 2002. Fortunately, he had experience meeting challenges and thinking outside the box after spending 14 years in the computer software industry, during which time he worked at companies such as Apple Computer, Corbis, and Amazon.com. “My wife and I are both passionate about education, and we were surprised by (the lack of) choices in the area at that time,” says Bowman. Looking to make a difference, Bowman and his wife developed a school with an integrated, project-based curriculum and small classes, which he says allow students to do things they can’t in a big school. In an integrated curriculum, teachers in all subjects—math, English, Spanish, art, music, and science—develop joint lesson plans that reinforce the concepts in varied and creative ways. That includes teaching students to use cutting-edge technology they’ll use in college and the workplace. The entire 61-acre campus is wired for WiFi and every Woodlawn student above sixth grade carries a laptop they use for Internet research, creating digital and audio presentations, and even award-winning documentaries. “Honestly, we weren’t sure it would work,” Bowman says. “But our graduates have gone on to some of the best colleges in the country and accomplished great things.”
Laureen Nelson SouthLake Christian Academy While many teachers struggle just to cover the required curriculum, Laureen Nelson is a classic overachiever, a teacher who’s involved in as many aspects of her students’ lives and education as possible. Nelson, an accredited math teacher with 17 years of experience, joined SouthLake Christian Academy in Huntersville in 2007 to teach high school mathematics. In addition, she’s also the faculty advisor for the school’s BETA Club and National Honor Society and serves as primary contact for the SCLA students’ community service program. Past projects have included a Christian rock concert to raise money to fight child slavery overseas, and an annual trip to Honea Path, S.C., to help with home repairs and maintenance for widows of World War II veterans. She’s also involved with the Athletics Booster club and serves as prop master and student liaison for the high school drama productions. “I teach at SouthLake because of the school’s philosophy of reaching the body, mind, and soul of the student,” says Nelson. “That’s why I’m involved at so many levels. Education is more than academic success. It’s helping children become the best people they can be.”
Harry Efird Visual & Performing Arts Center It takes an especially gifted teacher to get a bunch of high school kids excited about the Gettysburg Address or The Declaration of Independence. But in the hands of Harry Efird, National Board Certified former District Teacher of the Year for Iredell-Statesville Schools, they’re incendiary devices for igniting critical thinking and reasoning skills in his English III/American literature students. “I tell the kids there are no multiple- choice tests in the real world,” Efird says. “The most important skill we can teach them is to think, to reason, and ask questions.” Efird uses films, music, videos, and TV in his classroom to explore language, culture, gender, and race, because Efird knows students will wrestle with these issues as they move into the world and the workplace. “I push them to delve below the surface,” he says. “By the time kids get to high school, their brains are literally hard wired differently. Educators have to constantly look for new ways to connect with and engage them in the 21st century. The days of passively ingesting facts and figures are over.”