He was an outsider growing up. Now he’s been named one of the best teachers in the US.

Belmont educator honored as nation's best teacher

The NEA Foundation just named Bobbie Cavnar of Belmont, NC as the nation’s best teacher for 2018, presenting the award at a formal gala in the nation’s capital on Feb. 9. NEA Foundation video.
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The NEA Foundation just named Bobbie Cavnar of Belmont, NC as the nation’s best teacher for 2018, presenting the award at a formal gala in the nation’s capital on Feb. 9. NEA Foundation video.

Bobbie Cavnar walked out of the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., last Friday with checks for $35,000 tucked into his pocket.

He was slightly stunned.

At 40, he has spent most of his adult life teaching literature at a quiet high school on the outskirts of Charlotte. In a world that expects educators to impart high-tech job skills, Cavnar writes his classroom instructions in calligraphy and tries to spark a love of Shakespeare in Gaston County teenagers.

He figured he’d had his flash of fame in 2016, when he became North Carolina’s Teacher of the Year. Local boosters put his face on a billboard over Interstate 85.

Bobbie Cavnar headshot
Bobbie Cavnar

Now it’s starting all over, on a much bigger scale. The NEA Foundation just named him the nation’s best teacher for 2018, presenting the award at a formal gala in the nation’s capital on Feb. 9.

So once again, the man who spends his days in a well-worn classroom decorated with fringed lamps and antique clocks is taking his message to the digital world. It’s a message about the beauty of language, the value of thinking deeply – and the pride that comes from making a career as a classroom teacher.

“The arts are not always measurable. And right now if you can’t count it, it doesn’t seem to count,” Cavnar said. “Math and science are really important to sustain life. They are how we are going to move into the future. But the arts are how we are going to learn to understand each other.”

Saved by arts

In elementary school in Ann Arbor, Mich., Bobbie Cavnar stormed home to tell his mother how mad he was that a classmate had claimed his older brother was adopted.

His mother burst out laughing. Well, of course he is, she said. Hadn’t Bobbie noticed that his brother was African-American and he was white?

He hadn’t. His white parents – Betsy Cavnar, a nurse, and James Cavnar, who runs the Christian charity Cross International – had adopted two black children before giving birth to three. To Bobbie, that was just a normal family.

That’s the sort of typical-with-a-twist life that has shaped Cavnar.

It wasn’t easy being a boy named Bobbie Joe, a name he inherited from his grandfather. The first book he fell in love with was S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders.”

“I was definitely an outsider,” Cavnar recalls. He played the trumpet, discovered Broadway musicals and found his tribe in a circle of friends who did theater and marched in the band.

Poetry and Shakespeare’s plays always captivated him. He compares reading Shakespeare to understanding someone with a heavy accent – difficult at first, but eventually second nature. When he headed to college at Florida State University, all Cavnar knew was that he wanted to study literature.

“I had no idea as a freshman what I was going to do with that, but I thought, well, this is what I love and I’ll try to figure it out.”

The NEA Foundation just named Bobbie Cavnar of Belmont, NC as the nation’s best teacher for 2018, presenting the award at a formal gala in the nation’s capital on Feb. 9. NEA Foundation video.

Love at first brush

Cavnar took an intro to education class, which required him to teach a lesson at the high school on the Florida State campus. He was 19, barely older than the students.

He chose the Langston Hughes poem “Theme for English B,” a poem about a black student trying to write something true for an older white professor. The students peppered Cavnar with questions and observations.

“I walked out of there just thinking, ‘I have to do this.’ That was so exciting. That was so fun,” he recalls. He switched his major to education.

Bobbie Cavnar 1
Bobbie Cavnar, just named the nation’s top teacher by the NEA Foundation, teaches an Advanced Placement class at South Point High School in Belmont on Wednesday. Ann Doss Helms

His father, who had hoped Cavnar would be a lawyer, was skeptical. He had always taught his children that their purpose in life was to build a better society. James Cavnar wasn’t sure talking about literature to teens cleared the bar.

But Bobbie Cavnar was. He graduated and started teaching at a huge high school in Fort Lauderdale. He also met his wife, Jenny, a marketing major and fellow Florida State graduate.

They didn’t want to raise a family in south Florida, so they spread out a map and talked about places that seemed enticing. They decided to try Charlotte – she’d visited once and liked it – and move again if they didn’t like it after a year.

Cavnar applied at schools around the region, and did nine interviews over spring break 2003. He took a job at South Point High School in Belmont, a textile mill town of about 10,000 people just across the Catawba River from Charlotte.

One year turned into two. The Cavnars made friends. The third year, South Point’s principal told Cavnar it was time to lose his Florida license plate and put down roots.

They did.

The Cavnars now own a home in downtown Belmont and have two daughters. Carson, 8, is named for writer Carson McCullers. Harper, 5, counts Harper Lee as her namesake. Bobbie Cavnar knows all the teachers he hopes they’ll have – some of them are colleagues who used to be his students.

And he enrolled in graduate school at UNC Charlotte, studying English Renaissance literature and earning a master’s in 2011.

Popular isn’t enough

Cavnar is known as the teacher who makes English literature come alive for students. “If you sit down and listen for a bit, you want to stay,” says his current principal, Gary Ford.

His youthful enthusiasm won him a following among students, and Cavnar keeps looking for ways to engage them. When a group of students filmed scenes from Macbeth just for the fun of it, Cavnar turned it into an annual class assignment – one that features in the video the NEA Foundation made when Cavnar was chosen as a finalist for the 2018 award.

But Cavnar knows popular teachers aren’t always effective. As he tells his students, “I’m glad you had fun, but please, when you see me in 10 years say, ‘I learned so much in your class.’ That’s what I hope for.”

Bobbie Cavnar 2 use this
Bobbie Cavnar uses a Smart Board to write old-fashioned calligraphic classroom instructions. He likes to remind students at Belmont’s South Point High that taking time to make something beautiful is worthwhile. Ann Doss Helms

When asked about the moment that most encapsulates his career, Cavnar pauses – and realizes it isn’t even about literature.

He was assistant band director for a few years. A young trumpet player reminded him of his younger self. When that student skipped practice and lied to Cavnar about it, Cavnar took it personally. Cavnar confronted the student and admitted he was wounded by the deception.

A couple of years later, the student came back to tell Cavnar that conversation changed his life. He had started thinking about integrity, he told his former teacher, and how dishonesty harms others.

“It was one of those moments when you feel kind of like a failure,” Cavnar says now. “And then later when he came back I realized only then was I doing my best instruction, when I was putting myself out there to be hurt.”

A careful balance

As North Carolina Teacher of the Year, Cavnar stepped away from the classroom for a year, traveling as a teacher spokesman and serving on the state Board of Education.

But he came back. He’s had offers that would have brought bigger paychecks, he says, and has even done a few job interviews. “There’s been nothing that’s tempted me away from teaching here,” he says.

Cavnar says he fights the urge to call himself just a classroom teacher, or to justify his decision to stay put in Belmont. He also frets that his own job satisfaction might be held up as a sign that everything is fine for North Carolina’s teachers.

Cavnar says he can afford to teach because his wife earns a higher salary in corporate marketing. She travels on business while he brings the girls home from school, cooks dinner and provides “daddy day care” in the summer.

Single parents and couples who are both educators struggle on a public school salary, Cavnar says. In fact, he says he just took over a class for a top-notch colleague who left for better pay in a corporation.

Bobbie Cavnar with check
Bobbie Cavnar (second from right) poses after his award with (from left to right) Gary Phoebus, president and CEO of the NEA Member Benefits; Mark Jewell, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators; and Harriet Sanford, president and CEO of the NEA Foundation. Courtesy of the NEA Foundation

When Cavnar went to the NEA Foundation gala, he knew he was one of five finalists who had won Horace Mann awards for teaching excellence, which brought a $10,000 prize. The shock came when he was chosen for the top award, with an additional $25,000 check. And he couldn’t help noting that he was walking away with the equivalent of a starting teacher’s annual pay.

The recognition has finally persuaded Cavnar’s father that his chosen career is changing the world, Cavnar says. And his wife, the marketer, keeps reminding him to put aside personal humility and play up the honors as a celebration of good teachers everywhere.

As for Cavnar himself, he can scratch one thing off his bucket list. He used to joke that his goal in life was to Google his own name and come up with something other than articles about his namesake grandfather, renowned as both a heroic pilot and a prominent Catholic.

These days, when you search for “Bobbie Cavnar” you get articles about a Belmont dad who’s proud to be a classroom teacher.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms