Just a few years ago, Matthew Dukes was working in real estate and unhappy. On Wednesday, he was named the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ teacher of the year.
The second-grade teacher at River Gate Elementary stumbled upon teaching at age 42 after years of working at Charlotte Coliseum and then selling homes.
Dukes sat in education classes at UNC Charlotte with students half his age. And when he started teaching four years ago, he was one of the few second-career teachers – and the only male – in the classroom at River Gate, a school just a stone’s throw away from Carowinds Boulevard in South Carolina.
“I got tired of chasing a paycheck,” he said. “I wanted to do something that made a difference.”
Dukes was selected as the teacher of the year from a pool of seven finalists. He takes over for Lecia Shockley, a second-grade teacher at Selwyn Elementary, who was honored last May.
As CMS teacher of the year, Dukes will also be considered for regional and statewide teaching awards. The 2013 CMS winner, James Ford, went on to earn the North Carolina Teacher of the Year award and just finished his term traveling the state.
Dukes was awarded a $500 gift certificate from National Tire and Battery, and also gets the use of a Volkswagen Jetta for a year. All of the finalists received a $350 check from Fifth Third Bank.
Dukes was born in Nashville, Tenn., but raised in Rock Hill. He struggled with reading in school, and said that’s helped him relate to students who need extra support in his class.
Dukes related a story Wednesday about a child in his class who had been labeled a bully. Dukes said he realized that the misbehavior stemmed from difficulty reading, which made him frustrated in class. Dukes worked after hours on reading with the boy, and later asked his parents if Dukes could have him for an extra year.
By the time he entered third grade, the student was reading on grade level and today is in a talent development program, Dukes said.
“He just has the heart of a teacher,” said River Gate Principal Kimberly Odom. “His work ethic goes so far beyond what is expected.”
Second-grade teacher Rhonda Griffin, who mentored Dukes when he started at River Gate, said that she admires the rapport he has with his students and that his sense of humor is perfect for a second-grade audience. His students remember him for slapstick comedy like running into the white board when he needs to get their attention.
“He can make learning something difficult, funny, and they don’t get as frustrated,” Griffin said.
To teach a unit on sound, Dukes penned a book on the parts of the year with an animated kingdom of ants demonstrating the parts of the ear, from the hammer to the cochlea.
Dukes’ colleagues said he should get it published. And when it comes time to teach the lesson, other second-grade teachers bring their classrooms in to visit Dukes to hear him present.
“We just don’t do it justice,” Griffin said.
Teacher of the Year finalists
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools selected Dukes out of a pool of seven finalists. Here are the others.
▪ Le Tiqua Bellard, Northeast Middle (East Learning Community).
▪ Bridgette Best, Winterfield Elementary (Northeast Learning Community).
▪ Windy Fullagar, Alexander Graham Middle (Central Learning Community).
▪ Pam Holmes, Tuckaseegee Elementary (West Learning Community).
▪ Anna Leigh Marquez, West Charlotte High (Project L.I.F.T.).
▪ Michelle Revak, Blythe Elementary (North Learning Community).